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October 24, 2011 7:42 PM

Judge Orders Ex-Partner's Discrimination Suit Against Irell Sent to Arbitration

Posted by Tom Huddleston Jr.

A California superior court judge has sided with Irell & Manella and ordered that an employment discrimination and wrongful termination lawsuit brought against the firm by a former entertainment partner be decided in a confidential arbitration proceeding rather than a public courtroom. 

Judge Amy Hogue granted Irell's motion to compel arbitration (PDF) on October 17 in the suit filed against the firm in July by Juliette Youngblood, who spent 17 years as an Irell attorney and headed the firm's entertainment practice from 2002 until she left in August 2009.

Hogue ruled that all the claims contained in Youngblood's complaints fall within the scope of the firm's partnership agreement, which Youngblood signed and which dictates that such disputes be settled in arbitration.

As The Am Law Daily previously reported, Youngblood's suit sought unspecified damages from Irell for allegedly violating the California Equal Pay Act, as well as breach of contract, breach of covenant of good faith and fair dealing, wrongful constructive termination, and retaliatory actions.

Among other things, Youngblood's original complaint included a gender discrimination claim based on the assertion that "lost hours during maternity leave" resulted in a reduction in her pay, despite the common practice to offer credits for 16 hours each month for partners on approved leaves of absence. She also claimed that Irell's star patent litigator, Morgan Chu, made offensive comments—including some of a sexual nature—to her when the two were at a "happy hour" event in October 2008. Youngblood claims that she objected to Chu's comments and subsequently suffered various forms of retaliation, including an attempt to reduce her partnership points.

While Youngblood asserts in her complaint that her departure from Irell was a constructive termination, Irell claimed in its initial response to the suit, which the firm filed on August 11, that Youngblood left the firm to become a movie producer, and not because of abusive behavior on the firm's part.

The firm has said in court filings that Youngblood did not express displeasure with her compensation until the end of 2010, at which point the firm says she demanded that 180,000 be added to her 2009 salary, without making any complaints about gender discrimination, unlawful harassment, or gender bias.

Irell, which is represented in the matter by Paul Hastings partner Nancy Abell, filed a motion (PDF) October 17 to move the case to confidential arbitration and to seal certain exhibits filed by Youngblood that contain confidential information, including Irell's partnership agreement and certain internal memos.

Youngblood is represented in the matter by Pamela McKibbin Teren of the Teren Law Group. Neither Teren nor a spokeswoman at Irell responded immediately to requests for comment.

Hogue agreed with Youngblood's assertion that some aspects of the partnership agreement were unconscionable and ordered them severed for the purposes of the dispute between Youngblood and the firm. Hogue noted that Youngblood was never privy to any part of the agreement aside from the signature page. The provisions to be severed include the partnership agreement's clause stating that Youngblood was required to waive recovery of punitive damages, and a confidentiality clause that would prohibit Youngblood from disclosing the existence of any controversy or arbitration proceeding.

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