Asians, Biglaw, California, Feminism, Gender, Intellectual Property, Labor / Employment, Lawsuit of the Day, Litigators, Movies, Partner Issues, Partner Profits, Sexual Harassment

Youngblood v. Irell & Manella: The Law Firm Fights Back
Firm denies claims and moves for arbitration.

Juliette Youngblood and Morgan Chu

Last month, Juliette Youngblood, an ex-partner at the elite California law firm of Irell & Manella, filed suit against her former firm. In her lawsuit for sex discrimination and wrongful termination, Youngblood advanced a whole host of salacious allegations — including a report of sexual harassment by Morgan Chu, arguably the nation’s #1 intellectual-property litigator.

Irell did not respond to the lawsuit at the time. Now it has, in a blistering 22-page filing that calls Youngblood’s claims “meritless” and “utterly false, complete fabrications manufactured out of whole cloth.”

What does the firm have to say about the specific claims made by Youngblood — such as the allegation that a drunken Morgan Chu made inappropriate and offensive comments to her at a firm happy hour, including remarks about her physical appearance and about “objects entering [Youngblood’s] body”?

And what do ATL sources, including readers familiar with both Youngblood and Irell, think of the situation?

Alas, the firm does not offer a paragraph-by-paragraph response to Youngblood’s complaint. Instead, it asks Judge Amy Hogue to send the claims into arbitration (where, of course, the proceedings would be less unpleasantly public for the firm). According to the firm, arbitration is required by the Irell partnership agreement — a valid and enforceable agreement that Youngblood, who became a partner in 1997, willingly signed.

Most of the Irell filing focuses on the validity of the arbitration provision under federal law and California state law. Not surprisingly, there are multiple shout-outs to the recent Supreme Court case of AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, in which the Court held that the Federal Arbitration Act preempted certain aspects of California state contract law.

But the Irell motion to compel arbitration does contain some discussion of what the firm asserts is actually going on here as a factual matter. Here’s how Am Law Daily explains it:

Irell maintains that Youngblood “decided to withdraw as an equity partner from Irell [in August 2009] to pursue a career as a movie producer.” Irell’s response goes on to say that at the time of her departure, Youngblood said, “I’m the luckiest girl in the world for having been fortunate to have learned . . . from the very best.”

According to Irell, it wasn’t until the end of 2010 that Youngblood expressed unhappiness about her compensation. The firm says that at that time, she demanded an additional $180,000 in connection with her 2009 salary, but did not assert any gender discrimination, unlawful harassment, or gender bias claims.

Hold on a sec. All this trouble is over $180,000? One would think that Youngblood — a former equity partner at Irell, and an Irell attorney for 17 years in all — wouldn’t get so worked up over such a sum. (Movie producing must be expensive.)

Irell’s executive committee rejected Youngblood’s salary demand, according to the firm’s filing. It was only after subsequent exchanges during which the firm asserted that confidential arbitration was the appropriate forum for resolving the dispute that Yougblood “threatened that unless Irell agreed to pay her the compensation she demanded, she would bring a public suit filled with lurid, headline-grabbing allegations of harassment and discrimination,” the filing states.The firm also states that Youngblood “carried through on her threat by asserting her complete fabrications and publicly filing meritless claims.”

Which brings us to where we are today. In Irell’s version of events, Youngblood essentially hoped to use the threat of bad publicity to squeeze some cash out of the firm. Hence the publicly filed lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court, as opposed to some confidential arbitration, as well as the offer by Youngblood’s lawyer, Pamela McKibbin Teren of the Teren Law Group, “to try to resolve this before we filed” — i.e., before Irell and Morgan Chu get dragged through the mud. (We reached out to Pam Teren this morning for possible comment, but she did not get back to us.)

UPDATE (7 p.m.): We’ve now heard from Pam Teren: “I’m just getting back from vacation, so will be reviewing the response. I can tell you that we will be opposing the motion to compel arbitration most definitely.”

As those who have gone up against the firm in court know well, Irell isn’t the kind of place that caves. The firm willingly took the PR hit of Youngblood’s lurid lawsuit. And now it’s fighting the case (even though it probably wants to get into arbitration ASAP).

Irell isn’t messing around, as reflected in its choice of counsel. It has retained Paul Hastings, one of the nation’s top employment-law firms (on the employer side), with experience in defending large law firms against discrimination claims. As you may recall, Paul Hastings represented Sullivan & Cromwell in the lawsuit brought by Aaron Charney, the young gay lawyer who claimed discrimination on account of his sexual orientation.

(The Charney case ended with a confidential settlement. If anyone knows how much it went for, drop us a line — enough time has passed so that it’s safe to talk.)

Nancy Abell (left) and Deborah Weiser

When employers are sued for discrimination, they often like to hire lawyers who are members of the same discriminated-against group as the plaintiff. In this case, the two Paul Hastings lawyers defending Irell are Nancy Abell, global chair of the firm’s employment law department, and Deborah Weiser, of counsel in the Los Angeles office. Just like Juliette Youngblood, both Abell and Weiser are blonde, female lawyers, based in southern California (and Weiser, like Youngblood, is a Loyola Law grad). If this case should ever wind up before a jury, Irell has protected itself in terms of courtroom optics.

It’s unlikely that the case will ever get to a jury, of course; it will most likely go into arbitration or get settled. But what does the jury of Above the Law readers think? As is often the case in employment discrimination litigation, opinions are all over the map.

We’ll put the plaintiff’s case on first. “I have known Juliette for years,” said one ATL tipster. “She is an honest and good person, and a fine lawyer.” As for Irell, “I have watched the firm’s culture shift radically as power in the firm has centralized, while practice areas have been strategically cut and clients strategically dismissed.”

Said a second source, about Youngblood and about the experiences of women at Irell: “As someone who worked at I&M and knew Juliette, this sounds very legit. Check the firm website; the number of female associates tells a similar story.”

“There is one woman in the Century City office with kids and she’s a lateral,” according to this tipster. “The firm is in denial… [the firm’s] culture and problem are real.”

Now let’s hear from defenders of Irell. A number of them surfaced in the comments to our original story. Here are a few representative reactions:

  • “When you’re the #1 IP litigator in the country for two decades, I think you should get some slack from this kind of two-year old allegation. If she had a problem, she should have raised it with the managing partner (who was not Morgan) two years ago and lodged a formal complaint with the partnership. She’s a freaking Loyola (LA) grad – Morgan brought so much money into Irell that she’s been riding off his coattails for her entire career and benefited immensely financially and professionally from his presence. Suing the dude for monetary damages after all the benefit she got from his presence seems unsavory at best.”
  • “I love how some folks just assume she’s telling the truth. Let’s see, we have on one hand Morgan Chu and on the other, some woman who has a solo law practice with hopes of being a movie producer.”
  • “This whole suit reeks of monetary extortion, and I wonder if she is picking on Chu because she perceives him to be weak due to his race.”
  • “This lawsuit is as ridiculous as one involving Valerie Katz suing David Lat for sexual harassment.”

You can also read about Irell’s track record on diversity and specifically on women’s issues, over at its website. It seems reasonably strong in both areas.

Here’s a reader reaction that’s somewhere in between. This commenter believes that Morgan Chu probably did say inappropriate things to Juliette Youngblood, but that she’s blowing things out of proportion for a payday:

I totally believe [Youngblood’s allegations]. Lawyers are scum, just the scum of the earth and if you give scum a little power they will take advantage of it.

However, I seriously doubt it had anything to do with her termination. She was just another drone without any real legal talent (i.e., clients) who didn’t belong at Irell and was eventually pushed out… and she is using some idiotic comments by Chu as a pretext to get some cashola.

Hey blondie, try being a black woman for one day and see how life treats you. You would have been pushed out after one year and you would be doing doc review for the rest of your career.

Readers, what do you make of Youngblood v. Irell & Manella? Take our reader poll (which is worded rather openly, since at this point in time we don’t know a lot about the facts):

[This poll is now closed.]

UPDATE (12/17/2014): The case went into arbitration, where it was resolved in Irell & Manella’s favor. See this stipulation and order and this judgment.

Irell Fires Back at Ex-Partner Who Filed Discrimination Suit Against Firm [Am Law Daily]
Youngblood v. Irell & Manella: Motion to Compel Arbitration [Superior Court of California – County of Los Angeles]
Youngblood v. Irell & Manella: Complaint [Superior Court of California – County of Los Angeles]
Juliette Youngblood: Entertainment Lawyer of the Year [Century City Bar Association]
Juliette Carolina Youngblood [Avvo]

Earlier: Lawsuit of the Day: Youngblood v. Irell & Manella

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