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Pennsylvania Firm Must Face Attorney’s Age, Disability Bias Suit

Oct. 18, 2022, 4:17 PM

A former Stern & Eisenberg PC attorney who said the firm discriminated against her due to her age and hypertension diagnosis saw her claims move forward, under a federal court ruling.

Rebecca Field Emerson, who said she was frequently questioned about her children’s paternity because she was lesbian, failed to advance her sexual orientation and gender discrimination claims, the US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled Monday. It dismissed those claims, but granted her leave to amend.

Emerson worked as Stern’s director of business law from 2017 to 2020, and it was known throughout the firm that she was lesbian, according to the opinion. She said multiple coworkers inquired about whether she was the biological mother of her children, and that the behavior continued despite complaining to her supervisor.

After being diagnosed and hospitalized with hypertension in 2020, Stern requested to work remotely due to her concerns about Covid-19. Stern approved the decision but laid her off four days later. Emerson was the firm’s oldest employee when she was fired, approximately 61 years old, and she was replaced by younger employees, she said.

Emerson sued Stern for sexual orientation, age, disability, and gender discrimination, and retaliation under state and federal laws. The firm moved to dismiss all but her retaliation claims.

Emerson identified three employees 15 to 30 years younger than her who allegedly replaced her, and Stern argued that she failed to demonstrate they were similarly situated. The court rejected the firm’s argument, holding it too early in the case for the fact-intensive inquiry of “similarly situated,” and that Emerson sufficiently pleaded her age discrimination claims.

Judge Michael M. Baylson said Emerson provided sufficient evidence for her disability claims to survive dismissal as well, citing her termination just four days after requesting to work from home and hospitalization.

The court dismissed Emerson’s sexual orientation hostile work environment claim because comments about her children’s paternity weren’t severe enough. “These types of questions, while perhaps ‘inappropriate’ do not subject Plaintiff to any intimidation, ridicule, or insult,” Baylson said.

He also dismissed her sexual orientation and gender discrimination claims stemming from her termination, saying she failed to adequately allege a casual link between the paternity comments and the decision to fire her.

Koller Law LLC represents Emerson. Susanin, Widman & Brennan PC represents Stern & Eisenberg.

The case is Emerson v. Stern & Eisenberg PC, E.D. Pa., No. 21-cv-03096, 10/17/22.

To contact the reporter on this story: Annelise Gilbert at agilbert1@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Maya Earls at mearls@bloomberglaw.com