A former associate filed suit against Howrey this morning, alleging that the law firm routinely subjected her to discriminatory treatment based on her race.
Kamisha Menns, a black woman born in Jamaica, says in the complaint, filed in D.C. Superior Court today, that Howrey violated the D.C. Human Rights Act by retaliating against her, creating a hostile work environment, and inflicting emotional distress, both intentionally and negligently. Menns has asked for $30 million.
The complaint says Menns, who focuses her practice on antitrust and competition law, started in Howrey’s Brussels office on Jan. 19, 2009, after being heavily recruited to join the firm from Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer’s Washington office. To cover the cost of moving, Menns was paid a signing bonus of €10,000, according to the complaint.
At some point after moving to Brussels, Menns says in her complaint, she began being removed from projects despite receiving compliments on her work from several partners. She says her workplace was shifted to a different floor from that of other lawyers. When she reached out to the office’s managing partner, Trevor Soames, the complaint alleges, Menns was told “that because she was an ‘impressive woman’ Ms. Menns made Howrey’s white employees feel uncomfortable.” The complaint alleges that Soames also told her that because she was the first black associate to work in the office, the office staff’s treatment of her might be influenced by the fact that “they had never before been forced to be in a ‘subordinate position’ to a black person.”
The complaint goes on to allege that the situation only got worse when she reached out to firm leaders, including the Washington-based diversity committee and CEO Robert Ruyak. In a June 2, 2009, meeting, a day after Menns sent an e-mail to Ruyak and eight members of the diversity committee outlining the allegedly discriminatory treatment, Menns was fired. Since then, she has been unable to find work, the complaint says, which she claims is because the firm accused her of taking confidential documents from both Howrey and Freshfields. She also claims that she suffered emotional distress.
Menns’ lawyer, David Sanford of the employment litigation boutique Sanford, Wittels & Heisler, said, “This case is about Howrey creating an environment of segregation in the workplace and making Ms. Menns the focus of discriminatory behavior.” Sanford added that his client makes for a “very credible witness,” given her educational background. She holds an LL.M. from the University of the West Indies and an LL.M. from New York University. Sanford says he plans to take the matter to trial.
In a statement, Howrey said, “Personnel issues are always confidential and we will have no comment on this particular matter. As a matter of record, it should be noted that Howrey has been a leader among law firms in the area of diversity. For the last several years, Howrey has been recognized as such by among others, the Minority Law Journal’s 2009 ‘Diversity Scorecard,’ an annual survey which ranked Howrey 13th nationally among the top 200 grossing law firms in the US and was the recipient of Managing Intellectual Property’s Annual Award for Diversity.”
According to the 2009 Legal Times 150 survey, Howrey's Washington partnership is 11.61% minority.