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May 4, 2010 5:14 PM

Are Some Partners Employees? And Can They Sue as Such?

Posted by Zach Lowe

This one could be a doozy: A female partner at Pittsburgh firm Dickie McCamey & Chilcote has asked a federal appeals court for permission to sue the firm for violating various employment laws, including allegedly paying women less than men, according to Am Law Daily sibling publication The Legal Intelligencer.

Wait, you say. She's a partner, not an employee! She can't sue for sex discrimination as an employee! 

But the partner-plaintiff in question, Alyson Kirleis, claims she can in fact sue, and she has asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit to revive her case against Dickie McCamey, the Intelligencer reports. The court would have to overturn a lower court ruling that dismissed Kirleis' suit on the grounds that, as a partner, she does not qualify as an employee with the right to file claims as such. 

Kirleis's argument to the Third Circuit? She qualifies as an employee because partners above her on the food chain--particularly those who sit on various management committees--control her compensation, employment status, and other conditions of her job, the Intelligencer reports. Kirleis and her legal team claim that being subject to that sort of control marks her as an employee, the Intelligencer says. Dickie McCamey and its legal team at Jackson Lewis disagree and say precedent bars Kirleis's suit, the Intelligencer reports. 

Several high-profile groups, including the Women's Law Project and the National Women's Law Center, are backing Kirleis as amici in the case. 

The underlying claims in Kirleis's would-be action are ugly. She accuses Dickie McCamey of pay discrimination and says that a male partner told her that a woman with children should give up her partnership, the Intelligencer reports. She also claims a second male partner says female lawyers serve to prepare lawsuits for male partners who then handle those suits at trial. Kirleis also alleges that the firm's Christmas party includes sexually explicit skits, songs, and pornographic materials, the Intelligencer reports.

Does she have a chance at the Third Circuit? Well, that court previously ruled against Dickie McCamey when the firm argued that Kirleis could only pursue her claims via arbitration and not in federal court. That ruling alone was considered precedent-setting. 

We have a feeling firms will be watching this case closely. 

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