The Talent

February 25, 2009 2:57 PM

Former Covington Staff Attorney Sues Firm for Racial Discrimination

Posted by Brian Baxter

UPDATE: May 29, 4:00 p.m. Sibling publication Legal Times reports that Yolanda Young's suit against Covington & Burling has been dismissed after she failed to show up with her lawyer in court.

Yolanda Young, a former staff attorney at Covington & Burling who wrote a controversial column for the Huffington Post almost a year ago on racial segregation at large law firms, filed a discrimination suit on Tuesday in Superior Court for the District of Columbia against her former firm.

Young's 100-page filing names the firm, Covington litigation partners Patrick Davies and Stephen Anthony, former associate Caroline Reynolds (now with Zuckerman Spaeder), and former staff attorneys Sarah Wittig and Vanessa Natale as defendants.

Young, an African American, claims that in March 2006 she complained about being subjected to months of ethnic and racial slurs by white staff attorneys.

"Immediately thereafter, Covington management set out on a campaign to discredit [Young]," the complaint says. "At a staff meeting, a partner said that plaintiff had overreacted in reporting the use of racial slurs. As punishment, plaintiff was reassigned to an office with no minorities. Covington management further retaliated against plaintiff by subjecting her to increased, unwarranted scrutiny, falsely accusing her of overbilling, and commanding her to work off the clock."

Young claims that after months of mostly positive performance reviews, she began receiving negative feedback and in March 2006 was denied training on racial grounds. She also claims that other minority staff attorneys were subjected to adverse work conditions.

Her former firm begs to differ.

"While saddened that Ms. Young has chosen to make these false allegations, Covington & Burling intends to vigorously defend against them. Ms. Young's assertions overlook fundamental differences between the work of staff attorneys and other firm lawyers," the firm said in a statement released by its outside counsel, Michele Roberts at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. "Ms. Young's allegations also fail to account for the important roles played by African American lawyers at [Covington] . . . [her] assertions unfairly demean all of these attorneys."

Young's complaint also includes salary and bonus figures from 2007 that she claims are indicative of the retaliation against her. According to the complaint, the former staff attorney believed she was being targeted for firing after she received a $5,000 bonus in February 2007--a $4,000 reduction from the year before. (According to the complaint, Young was hired at a base salary of $70,000 in February 2005; she earned $130,000 in 2006, including overtime and bonuses.)

The complaint alleges that Young's 2007 bonus was even less than that of Sarah Wittig, who Young claims repeatedly violated Covington policies and, along with Natale, humiliated other black staff attorneys and Covington staff members.

In August 2007 Young was terminated. She claimed that she later learned that Covington had rehired several staff attorneys with, as stated in the complaint, "less seniority and lower billable hours" than herself. She reapplied for her old staff attorney position in March 2008 but was not rehired.

According to documents filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Young received a right-to-sue letter in December after a nearly six-month review by the EEOC. (Young told The Am Law Daily that she filed her complaint with the commission in June, after an EEOC official who'd read her Huffington Post column reached out to her.)

The EEOC documents also reveal Covington's assessment of her situation. In a letter to EEOC intake specialist Carol Allen, Covington general counsel Jeffrey Huvelle rejects all charges by Young relating to "racial discrimination and retaliation."

Huvelle states that Young was terminated "as part of a staff-attorney reduction in force in August 2007." Contrary to Young's claims of racial bias, Huvelle asserts that Young fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the staff attorney position.

The firm makes no promises to promote staff attorneys to associate and partner positions, Huvelle writes, and Covington makes clear that a staff attorney's primary job function consists almost entirely of online document review. Hiring is handled locally by each office, working with temporary staffing agencies, and with minimal input from lawyers at the firm.

In his letter to the EEOC, Huvelle states that there was no actionable racial harassment of Young by anyone associated with the firm. (In her complaint, Young cites the reading aloud of a Wikipedia entry on ethnic slurs by Wittig, Natale, and other white staff attorneys as creating a hostile work environment; Huvelle counters that the staff attorneys accessed the entry for "benign reasons to find out the linguistic origin of a particular slur" and that none of the slurs read aloud pertained to African Americans.)

Huvelle writes that Covington also responded immediately to Young's March 2006 complaint about work conditions and eventually found them to be without merit. He also states that Young was required to file any charge to the EEOC within 300 days after the incident occurred but did not do so until June 2008, thus missing "the filing deadline by almost two years."

Young's charge that Davies made a comment about having a "pet monkey" as a child during a luncheon talk to staff attorneys was intended to illustrate a point about making excuses for racial comments. While its use as an effective anecdote can certainly be debated, it was not intended to be racially offensive, writes Huvelle.

Huvelle goes on to state that Young's "allegation about the denial of training by her supervisor for racial reasons is a fiction" and that the firm lowered her yearly bonus because "the criteria for determining the amount" for bonuses was changed. This led to a different means by which staff attorneys were rated by a group of associates that lowered Young's overall rating and placed her in an "average" group later slated for termination.

Young, who graduated from Georgetown University Law Center in 1995, has never worked full-time at a firm but has done contract work for several Am Law 200 firms. In addition to her columns for the Huffington Post, Young has written her own book as well as articles for newspapers like the USA Today. She continues to maintain her own blog--On Being A Black Lawyer--and serves as a frequent TV commentator.

Young reached out to The Am Law Daily several weeks ago to state her intention to sue her former firm. She told us that roughly 30 percent of the 80 staff attorneys in her group were African Americans. Taking into account other minority groups, Young says that number increases to 60 percent. Many graduated higher in their class from law schools with better national rankings than their mostly white colleagues employed by Covington, she says.

We asked Young about the six African American partners at Covington. A seventh, Eric Holder, Jr., recently was confirmed as U.S. attorney general, the first African American to hold such a position. (Young wrote about Holder's nomination in January.)

"The black partners at Covington are by-and-large are heavily credentialed individuals," Young says. "Where Covington has white partners and associates who have gone to second-tier law schools and who have not graduated with honors, you can be assured that every black partner or associate is extremely well- or even over-qualified compared to their peers."

Young says that she believes she has a strong case and is looking forward to a "fact-finding endeavor."

"When the time comes for affidavits and discovery, I think other people will come forward and share their experiences at Covington as well," says Young, adding that her lawyer had preliminary discussions with Covington that went nowhere.

According to her complaint, Young is seeking the following: a declaratory judgment that Covington's violated the D.C. Human Rights Act in its treatment of her, awards of back pay and front pay to be determined by a jury, compensatory and punitive damages, reinstatement of her staff attorney job, attorneys fees and associated costs, and a retraction of alleged false statements made by Patrick Davies about Young and a public apology to her.

Young previously told us that she was being represented by David Wachtel of D.C. employment firm Bernabei & Wachtel. But it was Young's signature, not Wachtel's, that was on the signature page (see page 38) of the complaint filed in D.C. Superior Court on Tuesday.

Wachtel told The Am Law Daily that Young was representing herself pro se in the complaint filed against Covington.

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Has anyone confirmed ANY of these details? This sounds delusional.

Just read her "controversial" HuffPo entry. She's principally complaining that she contracted for a staff attorney position, which has no partner-track prestige or compensation; nor do it have any seniority or retention rights. However, she earned $130,000 a year for her "menial" work. More important is that she was never on a Big Firm attorney track; she didn't work as an attorney for years after law school, and admittedly took the staff attorney position to underwrite her writing career. Many of the complaints she makes can be made by ANYONE at a Big Firm, including most associates. However, at bottom--and apart from the "racial slur" allegations, which remain to be proven--she is complaining about a bed that she made herself. And at the same time, has managed to find a platform upon which to build her writing/commentator career. I personally believe (based on successful decades in BigFirms), that they are places where you sell your soul to get BigMoney and Big Prestige and BigWork. If that's your choice, fine. If it's not your choice, and you don't put in the time in the trenches, you really can't complain about not having the BigMoney, BigPrestige, and BigWork--or can you?

This is positively nutty. In her column criticizing AG Holder, she states emphatically that she is not interested in practicing law and has never been interested in becoming a law partner. So it is very difficult to understand what her beef is--seemingly she got a pretty good deal, a 9 to 5 job that paid her up to 130K, while she pursued other interests (often times this is the case with staff attorneys, they take these jobs to support themselves while they pursue other interests).

From my perspective, she is manufacturing claims to further advance her career as a writer and commentator. A genuine tragedy in my view since law firms do have a long way to go with regards to minority hires and advancement.... this lawsuit and her claims do nothing to actually help that cause; quite the opposite. She helps noone with this, not even herself.

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