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K&L Gates Accused of Systemic Race Bias by Black Former Partner

Nov. 10, 2020, 9:44 PM

K&L Gates LLP is permeated with systemic discrimination against Black lawyers despite marketing itself as a diversity leader through its support for minority-focused bar organizations, a Black former partner in New York charges in a new lawsuit.

Black lawyers instead face dim career opportunities at the 1,800-plus lawyer global firm, as well as limited chances for training and development, Willie E. Dennis says in a complaint filed Monday in federal court in Manhattan. They also are denied equal access to substantive, high-profile legal work and face substantial barriers to the partner ranks, he says.

In his time at K&L, Dennis personally faced discrimination because he is Black, including being denied origination credit for business he generated for the firm from clients like Microsoft, PepsiCo, and Starbucks, Dennis said. He and other Black partners were also paid less than White partners, and similar systemic pay discrimination exists in the associate ranks, he says.

K&L recruited him as a corporate partner in its New York office in 2005 partly based on “the decades of goodwill Plaintiff built in the African American community” over a career that has included participation in the Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Biden presidential campaigns, Dennis says.

Dennis says he was fired for complaining about discrimination against Black attorneys and for opposing the sexual harassment of female employees, including summer associates.

The racially discriminatory culture at K&L Gates drive Black associates out of the firm, he says, listing five Black unnamed male lawyers and 13 Black unnamed female lawyers who allegedly left the firm due to discrimination.

K&L management would deflect his concerns with comments such as, “African American lawyers cannot handle Big Law,” he said.

The firm terminated Dennis in May 2019 in retaliation for his complaints and because of his race, the complaint says.

But K&L has continued to harass and bully him for speaking out, including by hiring private investigators and on- and off-duty police officers to harass him and his family, Dennis says.

The suit also names eight K&L partners, who Dennis says “directly participated in” the discrimination, as individual defendants. They include the managing partner of the firm’s Asia offices, its global managing partner, its general counsel, and its New York managing partner.

Dennis’ “complaint is not only meritless, it is rife with false and defamatory allegations” K&L Gates told Bloomberg Law in an email Tuesday. He “was expelled as a partner of the Firm pursuant to a May 2019 vote of the partners because of an extensive and documented record of erratic, offensive and improper behavior, which he refused to stop despite repeated warnings.”

Causes of Action: Race discrimination and retaliation in violation of 42 U.S.C. Section 1981, Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the New York State Human Rights Law, and the New York City Human Rights Law; aiding and abetting discrimination and retaliation under the NYSHRL and NYCHRL; negligent hiring, training, retention, and supervision; breach of contract; tortious interference with contract-prospective economic advantage; unjust enrichment; quantum meruit; intentional infliction of emotional distress; negligent infliction of emotional distress; fraud; breach of fiduciary duty; accounting.

Relief: Order enjoining firm from subjecting employees to discrimination and harassment based on race and related retaliation; order enjoining firm from harassing Dennis and his family; order requiring firm to develop and implement measures to prevent discrimination, harassment, and retaliation, including employee training and complaint filing and investigation processes; back pay plus interest and all other appropriate equitable relief; compensatory damages, including emotional pain; attorneys’ fees and costs.

Attorneys: Dennis, of New York, is representing himself.

The case is Dennis v. K&L Gates LLP, S.D.N.Y., No. 1:20-cv-09393, complaint entered 11/10/20.

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick Dorrian in Washington at pdorrian@bloomberglaw.com

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