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October 5, 2011 6:09 PM

Former Proskauer CFO Hits Firm with $10 Million Discrimination Suit

Posted by Claire Zillman

Proskauer Rose, which frequently defends employers against discrimination claims, faces a discrimination case of its own.

In a suit filed Wednesday in New York State court [PDF], Elly Rosenthal, 57, claims the firm where she worked for 18 years—16 of them as chief financial officer—demoted and ultimately fired her because of her gender, her age, and a perceived disability following a medical leave during which she was treated for breast cancer. Rosenthal seeks $10 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

A Proskauer spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

In her complaint, Rosenthal says the problems at the heart of her dispute began in early 2008 when she took a three-month medical leave from the CFO job to receive cancer treatment. The complaint states that before Rosenthal took the leave, Proskauer chairman Allen Fagin told her "there will always be a place for you" at the firm.

But when Rosenthal came back to work, the complaint states, she was immediately removed from the CFO post and demoted to chief administrative financial officer, even though she had not gotten negative performance reviews. The complaint argues that Rosenthal's replacement as CFO, Jim Barbaria, was less qualified for the job than she was. Unlike Rosenthal, the complaint states, Barbaria was not a certified public accountant and had never led a financial department.

Rosenthal says in the complaint that she stayed with the firm in the lesser job, but claims that male administrators made a "concerted effort to force her out of the firm" by, for example, excluding her from communications about the firm's financial information and assigning her to a secondary New York City office eight blocks from Proskauer's new Times Square headquarters.

During a 2008 performance review, Proskauer's chief operating officer, Art Gurwitz, told Rosenthal that she would not receive a bonus or a merit increase, which he said was Proskauer's way of offsetting her three-month paid medical leave, the complaint alleges. 

When Rosenthal first returned to work, she accepted a pay cut in exchange for working a reduced schedule in the office, the complaint states. But when she resumed a full-time schedule in April 2010, her pay was not reinstated, according to the complaint. 

Finally, in March 2011, Proskauer fired Rosenthal because there was "no role" for her at the firm and then gave her three days to vacate her office, according to the complaint. "Proskauer's abrupt dismissal of Ms. Rosenthal, without warning of any kind, despite her nearly two decades of loyal service to the firm, constitutes malicious or reckless indifferent treatment," the complaint states.

While Rosenthal's complaint does not offer details about the alleged gender- and age-based discrimination, her attorney says he expects more information related to those claims to emerge as the case progresses.

Rosenthal's attorney David Sanford of Sanford Wittels & Heisler said in an interview Wednesday that he and his client have reason to believe that evidence unearthed during discovery will show that people in similar circumstances at the firm who are male or younger than the plaintiff "have not been treated in similar ways." 

 

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