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July 25, 2011 6:20 PM

Citing Harassment, Former Partner Sues Irell & Manella

Posted by Drew Combs

During Juliette Youngblood’s 17 years at Irell & Manella, she rose from associate to partner and, ultimately, to chair of the firm’s entertainment transactions group.

Despite her career success, she says she practiced in a caustic and discriminatory work environment, according to a lawsuit filed on Friday in Los Angeles County Superior Court by Youngblood, who left Irell nearly two years ago.

The firm’s discriminatory actions against Youngblood intensified following an “inappropriate” encounter with fellow partner Morgan Chu in October 2008 and culminated in the constructive termination of Youngblood in August 2009, according to the complaint.

Young seeks damages, including punitive damages, for among other things the firm’s violation of the California Equal Pay Act, breach of contract, breach of covenant of good faith and fair dealing, wrongful constructive termination, and retaliatory actions.

Irell declined to comment for this article.

Youngblood joined Irell’s entertainment department in 1992. In 1996, she was elected to the firm’s partnership and in 2002 she was appointed chair of the firm’s entertainment transactions group. Over the course of her career, Youngblood’s clients have included Viacom, Inc., and related companies such as Paramount Pictures, MTV, and Nickelodeon. Youngblood has also handled matters for reality television company Mark Burnett Productions, Inc.

Youngblood is described as a “rainmaker and tremendous asset to [Irell],” in the complaint. More specifically, the complaint asserts that Youngblood’s “business production . . . placed her in the top 15 percent of firm partners in terms of individually generated receivables for years, including 2006–2009.”

Despite Youngblood’s top-tier productivity, she was punished for taking a three-month maternity leave of absence, according to the complaint. Youngblood says her pay was reduced based on her “lost hours during maternity leave” even though other partners receive credits of 160 hours per month for taking approved leaves or sabbaticals.

Irell bases partner compensation decisions on a “six-year look-back” and as a result of maternity leaves in 1997, 2000, and 2002, Youngblood’s pay continued to be lower than similarly situated males, the complaint states.

But the major turning point in the relationship between Youngblood and the firm appears to have occurred following an October 2008 “Happy Hour” in one of Irell’s conference rooms. According to the complaint, Morgan Chu, a former managing partner at the firm, “approached [Youngblood] and made inappropriate, offensive comments, including comments of a sexual nature.” The complaint goes on to state that “the inappropriate comments included comments about [Youngblood’s] appearance, comments about objects entering [Youngblood’s] body, and references to body parts in a context of sexual innuendo.”

Youngblood objected to Chu’s comments and as a result he “. . . made an angered expression and stormed out of the Happy Hour,” the complaint states.

After the “Happy Hour” incident, Chu’s treatment of Youngblood took a negative turn and included Chu accusing her of lying about a client’s payments, according to the complaint.

Chu favored reducing Youngblood’s partnership points and “advocated for the firm’s decision to deny [Youngblood] a bonus.” From late 2008 to 2009, according to the complaint, Irell’s leadership also refused to approve Youngblood’s new client matters. During this period, the firm and Chu demanded that Youngblood get “special conflict waivers” from her longtime clients that among other things would permit Irell to sue them on behalf of new or preexisting clients.

According to the complaint, “On August 31, 2009, [Youngblood] was constructively terminated due to [Irell’s] demands for ‘special conflict waivers,’ as well as [Irell’s] continuing discriminatory and retaliatory actions.”

Chu, who is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, has made Irell a go-to law firm for high stakes intellectual property litigation including matters for City of Hope National Medical Center and TiVO, Inc. According to the complaint, Chu is the firm's highest income producer, generating tens of millions of dollars of business each year.

For 2010, the 184-attorney, Los Angeles-based firm was among the most successful on the West Coast with gross revenues of $256,000,000 and profits per partner of $2,937,383.

After leaving Irell, Youngblood set up Youngblood Group PC “to provide her clients with dedicated and innovative legal services while simultaneously teaming with Mark Burnett to pursue a lifelong dream of producing movies,” according to a write-up by the Century City Bar Association. The bar association selected Youngblood as Entertainment Lawyer of the Year in 2010.

Youngblood is being represented in the lawsuit by Pamela McKibbin Teren at the Teren Law Group. "I made many efforts to try to resolve this before we filed," Teren says, "but Irell didn't give us that option."

 

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