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Jones Day Loses Sanctions Push Against Women in Bias Suit (1)

June 9, 2020, 8:26 PMUpdated: June 9, 2020, 10:06 PM

Jones Day lost its bid to escape proposed class claims of six attorneys who allege that female associates at the firm face systemic discrimination, a federal court in Washington said.

The firm’s pay system and related policies, including one requiring lawyers to not discuss their salaries with co-workers, had a disparate impact on women, the plaintiffs allege. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in May rejected Jones Day’s motion to dismiss some of those claims, though it did dismiss others, including pregnancy and maternity discrimination and hostile work environment claims.

Jones Day also filed a Rule 11 sanctions motion seeking dismissal of the pay bias claims, arguing the plaintiffs didn’t have “a good-faith basis” to allege the firm pays male associates more for equal work. Jones Day’s motion ignored the fact that associate pay data is “jealously guarded” by the firm, and the limited data available does show unequal pay, the women countered.

The court denied the firm’s motion, according to the case docket, saying it was unconvinced that the plaintiffs failed to adequately investigate their claims before initiating the suit. They faced two considerable challenges, “both an alleged formal pay secrecy policy disincentivizing others from sharing their pay information,” and a lack of access to Jones Day’s pay data, the court added.

The ongoing lawsuit is one of several that takes aim at gender imbalances in the legal industry.

The former Jones Day attorneys sued in April 2019 arguing in part that the Big Law firm has a “black-box” pay system that favored men over women at the firm. They said the systemic discrimination—including a subjective evaluation system and hyper-centralized system placing final pay, promotion, and related decisions against female associates—resulted in lower pay and narrowed their career opportunities.

Lawsuits were also filed previously by former associates at Morrison & Foerster LLP and Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart PC. Five of the seven plaintiffs settled in the Morrison & Foerster dispute and the Ogletree Deakins case was dismissed as part of a settlement.

Jones Day faces another pay discrimination lawsuit brought by husband and wife lawyers Mark Savignac and Julia Sheketoff, who are challenging the firm’s parental leave policy.

The theories underlying the plaintiffs’ pay claims “are not so frivolous or beyond-the-pale to warrant sanctions,” the court said, and before discovery it’s premature to decide on the veracity of Jones Day’s assertions that the plaintiffs’ claims lack any factual support.

“Rule 11 is intended to deter and to punish litigation abuses. It is not a means of obtaining an early resolution of the merits of a dispute,” Judge Randolph D. Moss said.

Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP represents the women. Jones Day represents itself. Attorneys didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

The case is Tolton v. Jones Day, D.D.C., No. 1:19-cv-00945, minute order issued 6/9/20.

(Updated with additional reporting throughout. )

To contact the reporters on this story: Brian Flood in Washington at bflood@bloomberglaw.com; Erin Mulvaney in Washington at emulvaney@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Nicholas Datlowe at ndatlowe@bloomberglaw.com; Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com