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Will Associate's Suit for Discrimination Based on Sexual Orientation Be Resolved in Court or the Court of Public Opinion?

Used to be that lawsuits against firms for discrimination were a hushed affair, filed and pursued under cloak of secrecy. Law firms kept suits quiet, fearing damage to their reputation that might place them at a recruiting disadvantage. At the same time, most lawyers suing their firms kept quiet as well, fearing that a complaint would label them as a whiner and end their career.

So in this context I'm not sure if the lawsuit filed against Sullivan and Cromwell by Aaron Charney, an apparently still-employed associate at firm, for discrimination based on sexual orientation is simply an unexplained aberration or a new trend towards duking out claims not just in the court but in the court of Internet-driven public opinion.

As reported in Gay Associate Sues Firm For Discrimination (NY Law Journal 1/17/07), Aaron Charney filed a pro se suit against his employer, Sullivan and Cromwell, alleging that several partners discriminated against him because he is gay. From the article:

Aaron B. Charney accuses several of the firm's top partners of discriminating against him because he is gay. He also claims the firm initiated a retaliatory campaign after he filed an internal complaint, culminating in the issuance of a fabricated performance review.

In a statement e-mailed yesterday to all Sullivan & Cromwell lawyers, chairman H. Rodgin Cohen said the firm categorically denied Mr. Charney's allegations. He said the associate had made similar claims in May 2006, at which time he engaged a lawyer to demand a multi-million-dollar payment from the firm. The firm had investigated Mr. Charney's claims then, said Mr. Cohen, and rejected the demand for payment.

But that's hardly the end of the story. Over at Above the Law, David Lat has been providing extensive coverage, including a copy of the complaint, an interview with Charney, a memo attached to Charney's complaint about allegations of the firm overbilling clients and commentary from a sympathetic S&C former summer associate. (Full coverage accessible here.)

If Charney hopes to gain public sympathy, he has -- at least as evidenced by a poll put out by Lat, which shows that 64 percent of readers side with Charney. And with disclosures about S&L billing and other alleged practices, the firm isn't looking good (though again, that's just one side of the story).

Is Charney's public lawsuit something we can expect to see more of in the future? After all, with big-law reputations what they are, firms can suffer some serious damage in the court of public opinion (recall the surge that came to the support of popular blogger Denise Howell when she announced that she'd been terminated by her firm, Reed Smith). At the same time, law firms can use public opinion to their advantage as well. A law firm sued for discrimination might argue that it terminated an associate for incompetence and circulate inferior work product to back up its claims. 

By apparently resorting to what David Giacalone calls e-shaming, Aaron Charney may have opened up a huge can of worms. I admire Charney's conviction and his courage in speaking out, but at the same time, I hope for his sake (and other associates who've been treated unlawfully by law firms and are considering legal action) that all of this doesn't come back around and damage his career. 

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on January 18, 2007 at 06:46 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)


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