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August 12, 2011 7:19 PM

Irell Fires Back at Ex-Partner Who Filed Discrimination Suit Against Firm

Posted by Drew Combs

Irell & Manella responded Thursday to the employment discrimination and wrongful termination suit filed against the firm in July by former partner Juliette Youngblood, denying her claims and arguing that it was Youngblood's dreams of becoming a Hollywood producer, not abusive behavior on Irell's part, that led her to leave the firm.

In its 22-page answer to Youngblood's suit [PDF], Irell offers a narrative of Youngblood's tenure at—and exit from—the firm that differs sharply from the one she lays out in her complaint. The Irell document, filed by the firm's lawyers at Paul Hastings, also says the parties should be compelled to arbitrate the matter rather than litigate in court as stipulated in the firm’s partnership agreement.

As The Am Law Daily has already reported, Youngblood—an Irell attorney for 17 years who rose from associate to partner and, ultimately, to head of the firm's entertainment practice before leaving in August 2009—sued the firm in Los Angeles Superior Court last month. She seeks damages for what she claims are 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.

Youngblood’s complaint includes a gender discrimination claim based on the assertion that her pay was reduced due to "lost hours during maternity leave," even though other partners receive credits for 160 hours per month for taking approved leaves or sabbaticals.

The most explosive allegation contained in the complaint involves star patent litigator Morgan Chu, one of Irell's most prominent partners. Youngblood claims that Chu made offensive comments—including some of a sexual nature—to Youngblood during an October 2008 “Happy Hour” and subsequently retaliated against her in various ways, including attempting to reduce her partnership points. (Chu is not named as a defendant in the case.)

Youngblood further alleges that she was "constructively terminated" after failing to meet demands that she get "special conflict waivers" from longtime clients that, among other things, would permit Irell to sue them on behalf of new or preexisting clients.

In the answer filed Thursday, Irell maintains that Youngblood "decided to withdraw as an equity partner from Irell to pursue a career as a movie producer." Irell's response goes on to say that at the time of her departure, Youngblood said, "I'm the luckiest girl in the world for having been fortunate to have learned . . . from the very best."

According to Irell, it wasn't until the end of 2010 that Youngblood expressed unhappiness about her compensation. The firm says that at that time, she demanded an additional $180,000 in connection with her 2009 salary, but did not assert any gender discrimination, unlawful harassment, or gender bias claims.

Irell's executive committee rejected Youngblood's salary demand, according to the firm's filing. It was only after subsequent exchanges during which the firm asserted that confidential arbitration was the appropriate forum for resolving the dispute that Yougblood "threatened that unless Irell agreed to pay her the compensation she demanded, she would bring a public suit filled with lurid, headline-grabbing allegations of harassment and discrimination," the filing states.The firm also states that Youngblood "carried through on her threat by asserting her complete fabrications and publicly filing meritless claims."

The firm argues in its filing that all eight claims asserted by Youngblood fall within the scope of the parties' bilateral arbitration agreement. The Irell filing seeks a court order compelling Youngblood to arbitrate her claims and staying any additional court actions until the arbitration process has been completed.

Youngblood is represented in the lawsuit by Pamela McKibbin Teren at the Teren Law Group. Teren could not immediately be reached for comment on Irell's answer to the suit Friday. She told The Am Law Daily in July that "I made many efforts to try to resolve this before we filed, but Irell didn't give us that option."

Irell declined to comment beyond its court filling.

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