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McElroy Deutsch faces gender bias, sexual harassment suit

cleary-gottlieb-discriminationBy Charles Toutant, From New Jersey Law Journal

McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter has been hit with a suit by a former associate who claims she was fired after complaining about gender discrimination and sexual harassment.

The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on March 10, claims the New Jersey-based firm requires women associates to sign a release and confidentiality agreement before they can socialize with male attorneys after work.

The suit also claims male associates at the firm receive better work assignments than their female counterparts, allowing them to receive larger bonuses, while women lawyers are given more nonbillable work, which does not count toward quotas.

In response, McElroy Deutch issued a statement denying the allegations and said the “complaint is frivolous,” and that the firm intends “to defend our firm to the full extent of the law and seek all remedies available.”

The suit was filed by Elina Chechelnitsky, who worked as a summer associate for the firm’s bankruptcy group in 2008. After graduating from Fordham University Law School in 2009, and clerking with U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Peter Walsh in U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware, she joined McElroy Deutsch in 2010, working in the bankruptcy group at the firm’s Newark office, the suit says.

Chechelnitsky lodged complaints with two partners about a perceived lack of gender equity at the firm in December 2012, then was terminated in July 2013. She was told she was let go because of a lack of work in her department, but a male attorney was hired in the department less than a month later, the suit alleges.

Chechelnitsky’s suit also alleges the firm routinely includes minority female associates in client meetings with minority clients, even when those attorneys did not work on the case.

In addition, the suit claims the firm arranged a sparsely-attended retreat for women lawyers to give the appearance of gender equality in light of its annual, male-only golfing retreats, in which associates had opportunities to interact with firm leaders.

Chechelnitsky was instructed to attend the hastily organized retreat for women associates in March 2012, where no one would explain the reason for the retreat, and only four attorneys were in attendance, according to the suit.

Women associates at the firm appear to have a higher attrition rate, the suit says. Chechelnitsky joined McElroy Deutsch as part of a first-year associate class of eight men and eight women; as of December 2013, seven of the eight male associates remained, but only two of the eight female associates were still with the firm, the suit says.

The suit also alleges Chechelnitsky suffered sexual harassment as a summer associate, by the male associate she reported to, and that when she reported the harassment to a woman attorney who was assigned as her mentor, she was told that the male associate was known for harassing co-workers. Chechelnitsky was advised to stay away from the male associate, but was not able to stop the harassment, the suit claims.

Later, in October 2010, while attending a conference, Chechelnitsky met Lou Modugno, a partner in the Morristown office. Modugno began giving her challenging and desirable assignments that allowed her to bill a significant number of hours, the suit says.

Soon after, she met a bankruptcy associate from the Morristown office, Greg Trif, according to the suit. The suit alleges Chechelnitsky began receiving flirtatious emails from Trif and that Trif also made regular visits to her in her office.

Trif told her that attorneys were clamoring for “face time” with Modugno, but that she was in the firm’s “inner circle” because he was close to Modugno, the suit alleges.

Chechelnitsky and Trif began dating, and around the same time, he told her that Modugno had authorized him to assign work to her, the suit claims. Trif regularly bragged about his relationship with Modugno and told Chechelnitsky she would go far if she would “stick with” him and Modugno, the suit claims.

Trif later insisted on advising Modugno and partner James Mulvaney that he and Chechelnitsky were dating, despite her concerns that the disclosure would damage her career, the suit alleges. Trif insisted that the disclosure would only help her career, the suit says. After the disclosure, Modugno and Mulvaney began giving Chechelnitsky more assignments, the suit says.

Trif told Chechelnitsky that Modugno had arranged to have the firm give Trif a large loan when he had difficulty selling his home, and he told her he earned $150,000—far more than she had been led to believe other fourth-year associates earned, the suit claims. When Chechelnitsky expressed surprise at the amount Trif was earning, he said he made the highest bonuses because he was able to bill so many hours from assignments he received from Modugno and Mulvaney, the suit claims. Chechelnitsky also
learned that Trif did very little non-billable work, according to the suit.

Chechelnitsky soon realized she would not be able to earn large bonuses unless she was assigned significant amounts of work, enough to let her bill above the firm’s minimum requirements, according to the suit.

One day, the suit alleges, Trif told Chechelnitsky that on the day she first met Modugno at the conference, he “‘thought you were hot and that I should meet you.’” Trif said Modugno had given Chechelnitsky her first assignment merely so Trif could meet her, the suit claims.

“Plaintiff was very disturbed and uncomfortable that she had only been assigned to a case because partner Modugno found her attractive and wanted to set her up with one of his favored associates,” the suit says.

Chechelnitsky and Trif soon stopped dating, according to the suit.

“Almost immediately after the breakup, partner Modugno, partner Mulvaney and associate Trif all stopped giving her assignments,” the suit claims.

The suit also claims that a male bankruptcy associate who was hired at the same time Chechelnitsky was, Aaron Applebaum, was “blatantly favored” for work assignments, was given more autonomy and was encouraged to strategize about cases and take the lead on communications with clients and adversaries. The consistent flow of work to Appelbaum allowed him to obtain the highest bonuses, the suit claims.

The suit says other women associates were frustrated by the lack of a human resources department at the firm and were “too scared to complain about the discrimination to their male superiors, who themselves imposed and/or benefited from the gender discrimination.”

Chechelnitsky brought the suit in the Southern District of New York because she lived in Manhattan at the time she worked for McElroy Deutsch, according to the complaint.

The suit brings counts for gender discrimination under federal law, and retaliation, sexual harassment and gender discrimination under the laws of the state and city of New York. Chechelnitsky is seeking damages of $1.75 million, according to the complaint.

Trif and Mulvaney declined to comment on the suit; Modugno and Applebaum did not return calls seeking comment on the suit.

McElroy Deutsch General Counsel Ronald Riccio issued a statement on behalf of the firm.

“Ms. Chechelnitsky’s current complaint is identical to an unsworn [U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] charge she filed against our firm in May 2014. The EEOC terminated its processing of that charge in December 2014 without taking any action,” the firm said in the statement. “We believe the plaintiff’s allegation of wrongdoing in this complaint is frivolous, and intend to defend our firm to the full extent of the law and seek all remedies available. We are confident that the facts of the case will result in an outcome in the firm’s favor. Because this matter involves pending litigation, our firm’s policy precludes us from public comment beyond this statement.”

Chechelnitsky’s lawyer, Megan Goddard of Nesenoff & Miltenberg in New York, issued her own statement about the case.

“As a female attorney, I am proud of my client for standing up for herself and for other women in the legal profession,” Goddard said. “Gender bias in the legal field will only change because attorneys like Elina Chechelnitsky are refusing to accept it. There is a personal and professional cost to fighting discrimination, but Elina is making that sacrifice so that the women who come after her will not suffer the same career limitations.”
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