On Tuesday, Ropes & Gray was sued in Manhattan federal court by a former partner, Patricia A. Martone. Martone’s lawsuit claims age discrimination, sex discrimination, retaliation, and interference with protected retirement benefits in violation of ERISA (the basis for federal jurisdiction in the S.D.N.Y.).

As you might expect from an ex-Ropes partner, Martone has some high-powered counsel: Anne Vladeck, one of New York’s top labor and employment lawyers, widely regarded as the queen of employment discrimination law. Vladeck famously (and successfully) represented Anucha Browne Sanders in her sexual harassment lawsuit against Isiah Thomas and the Knicks.

Patricia Martone is a veteran intellectual-property litigatrix, a specialist in patent litigation, with almost 40 years of practice under her belt. She made partner at Fish & Neave, the well-known patent law firm, in 1983, and then became a Ropes partner in 2005, when Ropes absorbed Fish. She’s now a partner at Morrison & Foerster, which she joined in October 2010.

Why did she leave Ropes? Let’s have a look at Patricia Martone, and her lawsuit….

(By the way, we heard about Martone v. Ropes & Gray from several sources, via email and text message (646-820-8477). The most amusing communication was an email attaching the complaint that simply read: “Ropes got sued. No spring bonuses + Gender discrimination + Age discrimination = Tisk tisk.”)

Martone’s complaint is quite well-crafted — as one might expect from the work product of a leading labor litigatrix like Anne Vladeck. It begins with a concise summary of the allegations:

Patricia Martone

The 23-page complaint then sets forth Martone’s allegations of how Ropes & Gray tried to get her to turn over her patent litigation practice, especially strong among Japanese clients, to a bunch of Young Turk male partners. According to Martone, when she complained about this age and sex discrimination, she was fired.

After her firing from Ropes, which she claims was retaliatory and unlawful, Martone joined Morrison & Foerster as a partner. But now Ropes won’t pay her the retirement benefits she claims are owed to her (hence the ERISA claim), citing her work at MoFo as competitive.

You can read the full complaint here. To be honest, though, even though this complaint is nicely drafted — clear, concise, and matter-of-fact — it’s not that juicy a read. It’s a far cry from such salacious complaints as Charney v. Sullivan & Cromwell (gay associate told to “bend over” by a partner), Nelson v. Jones Day (racial slurs and sex scandals galore), Allgood v. Williams Mullen (the notorious “cucumber incident”), and Braude v. Maron Marvel (girl-on-girl sexual harassment in, of all places, Delaware).

Why does Martone v. Ropes & Gray pale in comparison to the foregoing complaints? Compared to these classics, the Martone complaint is understated, taking a “just the facts, ma’am” approach to pleading. Consider the following omissions:

1. The complaint lacks truly lurid allegations; there are no tales of crazy conversations, awful insults, or slurs (unless you consider “Mom” to be a slur; Martone claims she was referred to as the “Mom” of the Tokyo practice). It’s not nearly as fun to read as, say, Dillon v. Reed Smith (female partner claiming the best work went to women who slept with partners in management), or Simmons v. Akin Gump (female associate claiming she was insulted by a rude British dude).

2. The complaint could have contained delicious details, in terms of dollar figures, about Martone’s Biglaw partner compensation and Ropes retirement package. Alas, unfortunately for socioeconomic voyeurs like myself, it does not. In fact, there’s not a single dollar figure in the entire 23 pages.

3. Speaking of the absence of dollar figures, the complaint doesn’t contain an eye-popping, multimillion-dollar demand, like so many civil lawsuits. Given the mad ducats that IP litigators pull down, a seven- or eight-figure claim would have been plausible (unlike ex-associate Charlene Morisseau’s ridiculous $250 million lawsuit against DLA Piper). But the prayer for relief in Martone’s complaint doesn’t specify a dollar amount.

4. Finally, the complaint doesn’t attach the Ropes & Gray partnership agreement. Putting a partnership agreement into the public record is kind of a dick move, but it’s not new. See, e.g., Charney v. Sullivan & Cromwell (leading S&C to complain to the court that “[t]here is no good faith reason to attach a copy of this entire document to the Charney Complaint”); Carey v. Foley & Lardner (discrimination lawsuit brought by a white male partner, including the full partnership agreement as an exhibit).

In sum, Martone v. Ropes & Gray is a serious rather than sensationalized complaint. It might not be sexy, but it’s shrewd. It shows that Pat Martone and Anne Vladeck mean business. They don’t want (or need) to put Ropes on the ropes — at least not yet. The message seems to be: “Look, Ropes & Gray, we’re going easy on you. We have lots of dirt and dish that we could make public through this litigation — profit-per-partner numbers, the R&G partnership agreement, internal firm gossip. But we’re keeping all this stuff out of the public eye — for now. How much of this information becomes public is entirely up to you.”

Reading between the lines of the complaint, Martone and Vladeck seem to want this matter settled expeditiously (yet lucratively), so Martone can return to focusing on the practice of law. And my guess is they’ll get what they want.

UPDATE (10:30 AM): More coverage over at the ABA Journal, which pulls out additional highlights from the complaint (relating to Martone’s claim that she, as a rank-and-file partner, did not have a say in how the firm was run).

UPDATE (10:45 AM): A few good points made in the comments, some in defense of Ropes:

  • “What I do not understand is why a significant rainmaker like Martone would ever stand for the firm telling her what to do with her clients.”
  • “She was only a few years away from retirement (even the higher age of 67). Wouldn’t it be logical for the firm to want her to make her clients the firm’s clients (and have her build relationships between the clients and younger partners)?”
  • “[W]ith respect to the salacious details, I think that the Plaintiff has to think about what it will look like to her current employer if she starts going beyond what is necessary to prosecute this case. I suspect that may be one of the reasons the complaint is drafted the way it is. What would it look like to her new partners at MoFo if she spills out the partnership agreement for no good reason?”

UPDATE (7:45 PM): Here’s some happier Ropes & Gray news — spring bonuses!

UPDATE (5/23/2013): You can read about the resolution of this case here (note the updates at the end).

Patricia A. Martone v. Ropes & Gray: Complaint
[U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York]


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