Say, for example, you work on staff at a Biglaw firm that hosts a monthly office happy hour. The festivities allegedly culminate in people getting so drunk that they try to strangle you on your way to the bathroom.
That would be bad news. Because Mad Men may be a cool show, but these days, it’s not a world in which many people would want to live.
Would such events ever transpire at a leading law firm in Washington, D.C.? According to a new lawsuit, at least one angry former employee would say so…
Kristine Colombo, who worked as a business development coordinator at the firm from 2007 until September 2011, says an employee in the firm’s IT department sexually harassed her, and attempted to choke her during a happy hour held in Patton Boggs’s West End offices. After she reported the attack, Colombo alleges that human resources personnel began telling her coworkers were complaining about her. Colombo says she was denied a merit salary increase despite an outstanding performance review, and was falsely accused of drinking during work hours, put on probation, and ultimately fired — all in retaliation for reporting the harassment.
According to the complaint, filed in DC Superior Court against both Patton Boggs and the individual IT employee, “socialization with alcohol was part of the firm’s culture, and was an activity in which the entire firm frequently took part.” Colombo’s lawyer, Carla Brown, a name partner at Charlson Bredehoft Cohen Brown & Sakata, says if it weren’t for the intermingling of alcohol and the work environment, the alleged attack on her client likely never would’ve happened.
Wow. These are pretty salacious claims (and not the first time someone has complained about the firm’s culture). Not only does Colombo allege that she was harassed and choked, she claims she reported the incident, and instead of getting help was retaliated against. (It’s worth noting that no attorneys appear to be directly involved in the original alleged events, although perhaps some partners would have been involved in the alleged fallout.)
The specifics of Colombo’s allegations are quite unsettling. Colombo alleges not only physical violence but some disturbingly anachronistic misogynistic remarks. Let’s just say the firm should hope the folks at Jezebel don’t hear about the claim:
The complaint says that on the third Thursday of every month, Patton Boggs hosted a happy hour for employees, known as “Third Thursdays.” At one such celebration last year, the festivities started at 4:30 and included cocktails and sushi, according to the complaint. While at the event, Colombo contends she was confronted by the IT employee outside the restrooms, where, in a slurred voice, he threatened her children. When Colombo returned to the party, she alleges the man followed her, grabbed her neck from behind, and started to choke her. Colombo alleges the IT employee told her she was resisting his advances because she was “frigid,” and asked her if she had “been raped before.” Colombo asked another male colleague to escort her to her car so she could leave.
In addition to the other mistreatment Colombo says she endured after reporting the attack to human resources, she alleges that Patton Boggs’s chief operating officer told her to “just forget about” the incident. According to the complaint, the COO also “recognized and admitted that the firm has a culture where drinking alcohol frequently occurs, and is accepted behavior, among all employees, including partners and other management.” Colombo was fired in September.
The firm has denied Colombo’s allegations and says it stands by the decision to terminate her employment, according to a statement given to Washingtonian:
“Patton Boggs terminated Ms. Colombo’s employment in response to troubling complaints about her workplace conduct by other employees. The firm thoroughly investigated those complaints and documented its investigation. Before this lawsuit was filed, we voluntarily shared those documents with Ms. Colombo’s attorney and permitted her attorney to question the two human resource professionals who conducted that investigation. It is a shame that Ms. Colombo and her counsel chose to ignore the evidence and file this case. We are confident that we will prevail in Court and are fully prepared to defend our actions.”
It will be some time before we learn how accurate Colombo’s claims may be. In the meantime, remember kids: Happy hour with your coworkers is not the same as a night at your local BDSM club. Act accordingly.