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January 30, 2012 4:48 PM

Discrimination Suit Against Mayer Brown Can Proceed, Judge Rules

Posted by Sara Randazzo

A lawsuit brought by a former Mayer Brown associate in which she claims the firm fired her because she is black can proceed, a North Carolina federal judge ruled Friday. At the same time, the judge cleared the way for counterclaims brought by Mayer Brown that accuse the associate of improperly taking confidential client documents in the months prior to her September 2008 departure from the firm.

U.S. district court judge Max Cogburn's denial (PDF) of the dueling motions for summary judgment comes more than two and a half years after the former associate, Venus Yvette Springs, first took legal action against the firm. In an amended complaint (PDF) filed in November 2009 in Charlotte federal court, Springs, who is black, alleges that Mayer Brown routinely discriminated against her because of her race, and ultimately fired her for the same reason in May 2008.

Springs joined Mayer Brown's real estate department in Charlotte in July 2007 after five years with Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, according to court papers. In Mayer Brown's motion for summary judgment (PDF), the firm describes how Springs was recruited to the firm at a time when its Charlotte office was launching its real estate practice and seeking someone, like Springs, with expertise in real estate lending transactions. The firm hired her at a salary of $210,000, gave her a $15,000 bonus, and, based on her experience, expected her to "function at a senior associate level—that is, independently and effectively, without requiring detailed partner oversight," according to the summary judgment motion.

Springs alleges in her amended complaint that at some point the firm began to treat her differently than her white counterparts. The alleged discriminatory acts included providing Springs with an office that was inferior to those given to other members of the real estate group (none of whom were black); providing her less paralegal and associate assistance than others received; and excluding her from client lunches and other firm activities.

Springs also claims that the firm denied her a bonus because it would not count her pro bono work toward her 2,100-hour-a-year requirement, as had been promised. Beyond that, Springs alleges in her amended complaint that Mayer Brown hired her in an attempt to boost its poor diversity numbers and that she, as well as other black attorneys, were used as a "marketing tool" to tout the firm's diversity.

In its motion for summary judgment, Mayer Brown countered that Springs failed to live up to her reputation as an experienced lawyer in mezzanine lending work. By the time of her departure, the firm claims, partners were no longer giving her assignments and felt uncomfortable having her interact with clients.

Firm attorneys and clients alike found Springs "unresponsive and excessively combative in her communications" and "obstreperous," the Mayer Brown motion says, and that it was difficult to predict when she would be available (Springs notes in her complaint that the firm agreed to let her work from home much of the time to care for her two young children).

On May 22, 2008, Mayer Brown asked her to leave because "partners and clients had lost confidence in her abilities," the summary judgment motion states. Per the firm's standard practice, it gave her 90 days to look for a new job before she officially had to leave, the filing adds.

A call to Mayer Brown's lawyer, Bruce Steen of McGuireWoods, was not immediately returned Monday, and a spokesman for Mayer Brown said the firm does not comment on pending litigation. Reached Monday, Springs says she is "very pleased the case survived summary judgment," adding that "I so, so look forward to trial." She is represented in the case by Charlotte lawyer Julie Fosbinder, who did not return a call for comment.

By the time of Friday's ruling, Cogburn had already dismissed claims brought by Springs against the firm for racial harassment under Title VII and a series of allegations against the firm's Charlotte office head, Jonathan Barrett. Springs's claim of wrongful discharge remains.

Mayer Brown, meanwhile, had filed a counterclaim alleging that Springs accessed firm documents and retained them for her personal use, including documents from cases she did not work on and "confidential documents concerning the firm's business plan." Cogburn kept those claims alive, writing that, "Clearly, defendant has presented a forecast of evidence that plaintiff has taken away from the firm things of value that she was not authorized to take."

After departing from Mayer Brown, Springs landed at Ally Financial. That job also didn't end well, and Springs sued Ally in August 2011 claiming that she was terminated as retaliation for her suit against Mayer Brown. The suit against Ally, first covered by Above the Law, is pending in Michigan federal court.

Springs, a graduate of Duke University School of Law, says she is now a solo practitioner. According to her firm's Web site, she is available for contract work.

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