Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP is accused in a new lawsuit in New York of discriminating and retaliating against a black former associate because of his complaints about racial bias at the law firm.
The retaliation against Kaloma Cardwell allegedly included denying him job assignments and eventually terminating him, according to his complaint filed in federal court in Manhattan.
The firm’s push to limit his professional development and work opportunities was in stark contrast to what it told Cardwell about its diversity and inclusion efforts when it recruited him away from other firms, he says. The bias caused him to go from billing more than 100 hours per month to four straight months with zero billable hours, Cardwell says in the Nov. 4 complaint.
The suit names Davis Polk managing partner Thomas Reid and six corporate partners as defendants in addition to the firm.
The bias came even though Davis Polk acknowledged that it had struggled in the past to recruit and retain black lawyers and had told him it had taken steps to address the problem, Cardwell says. Reid even sought out Cardwell for help in improving diversity within the firm, he says.
Cardwell started with the firm in 2013 as a summer associate and then worked as a full-time lawyer from 2014 to 2018, the suit says. He was the only black attorney hired in the firm’s 2014 class of more than 120 new associates, and one of only four black attorneys at the entire firm, the complaint says. Legal publication Chambers Associate has reported that, in 2019, 87% of Davis Polk partners are white, 81% are men, and less than 1% are black, according to the lawsuit.
Despite his top credentials and stated attractiveness to Davis Polk, the firm didn’t address, and retaliated against Cardwell, when he personally reported discrimination, the suit says. A firm leader, for example, chalked up Cardwell’s initial complaint about partners failing to make eye contact with summer associates “of color” to “social awkwardness,” the lawsuit says. Caldwell said he expressed concerns about his chances to advance at the firm before agreeing to work there and received assurances that it recruited the top black law school graduates and wanted to retain them, the suit says.
Despite those assurances, Cardwell soon found himself left off emails and excluded from meetings yet he continued to complain about the bias. Instead of properly investigating, Davis Polk embarked on a “year-long process” to try to build a false record of “distorted” performance issues for which it could fire Cardwell, the suit says. That included multiple “sham” job reviews that provided “vague” critiques of his performance that were inconsistent with verbal feedback he was receiving and that “no associate would have been able to assess, verify, or dispute.” The most specific criticism he received from one partner, for example, related to his misuse of “I” in place of “me” in an internal email, Cardwell says.
His termination came about one year after Reid had threatened that Cardwell would be “out of the game” and “off the field” if he didn’t let go of mistreatment complaints and move forward with his career at the firm, Cardwell says. It also came roughly six months after Cardwell filed a bias charge against Davis Polk with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the suit says.
Causes of Action: Race discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the New York State Human Rights Law, and the New York City Human Rights Law.
Relief: Compensatory damages, including back pay, front pay, lost bonuses and other benefits; emotional, reputational, and psychological harm; punitive damages; order declaring the firm violated federal, state, and local anti-bias laws; attorneys’ fees and costs; pre- and post-judgment interest.
Response: “Mr. Cardwell’s termination had nothing to do with his race,” Davis Polk told Bloomberg Law in a Nov. 5 email. “He was terminated for legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons. The claims lack merit, and the firm will defend the case vigorously.”
Attorneys: David Jeffries and Law Offices of Martin E. Restituyo represent Cardwell.
The case is Cardwell v. Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP, S.D.N.Y., No. 1:19-cv-10256, complaint filed 11/4/19.