Covington & Burling won the dismissal yesterday of a former staff attorney's discrimination lawsuit against the firm.
Yolanda Young, who worked as a staff attorney in the firm's Washington office from 2005 to 2007, sued the firm in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in March 2009, claiming she faced unlawful retaliation after she complained about what she believed was racial discrimination within the firm.
Covington won a partial summary judgment in Sept. 2010, and moved for full summary judgment last May. In a 44-page opinion (PDF) published late Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton found that Young failed to meet her burden for claiming discrimination and unlawful retaliation.
The firm, Walton wrote, “has asserted a legitimate, nonretaliatory reason for every allegedly retaliatory adverse employment action the plaintiff claims she was subjected to.”
Young, a member of the D.C. Bar since 1998, has been representing herself. Her former attorney, Latif Doman of Washington’s Doman Davis, withdrew from the case in October, citing diverging opinions on strategy. Young declined to comment.
Covington, which is being represented by Washington’s Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, issued a statement this morning that it is “gratified” by the ruling.
“After carefully reviewing all the evidence in the record, and doing so in the light most favorable to Ms. Young, the court concluded that none of her many claims has any merit. We are gratified by the ruling and regret that a number of our employees and attorneys were the subject of unfair and unfounded accusations,” the firm wrote.
Young, who is black, was among 170 staff attorneys hired by the firm between 2005 and 2008 to do electronic document review work. As Walton noted in his opinion, no staff attorney hired as part of that program was ever hired at the firm as an associate, counsel or partner.
In the complaint, Young alleged several incidents of racially-based harassment during her time at the firm, including one incident where a fellow staff attorney purportedly read aloud racial slurs from the internet within earshot. She also claimed that white staff attorneys generally received more favorable treatment.
In Aug. 2007, Covington fired eight staff attorneys, including Young, citing the lack of available document review work. Covington said it based terminations on billable hours and evaluations from associates who had worked with the staff attorneys. Young contacted the firm in early 2008 about another job opportunity, but was not rehired.
Young sued the firm, claiming Covington’s internal policies discriminated against black attorneys and that she was unlawfully denied training, bonuses and promotion opportunities – and was then fired – because of her race. Covington denied all of the discrimination claims, and argued that it had reasonable and non-discriminatory reasons for firing Young.
Walton, in yesterday’s opinion, found that Covington had submitted lawful explanations for firing Young. He wrote that even if Young had been subjected to a hostile work environment, Covington “responded promptly and appropriately” to fix the only incident formally brought to her supervisor’s attention, the alleged reading aloud of racial slurs. Covington couldn’t be blamed for issues it wasn’t aware of, Walton wrote.
Walton found that Young couldn’t claim she was denied job opportunities because she never applied for a promotion. Furthermore, Young couldn’t prove that Covington’s policy of not promoting staff attorneys was discriminatory because no staff attorney, regardless of race, was ever promoted.
“It strikes the Court that the plaintiff created a nearly insurmountable task for herself in aiming her disparate impact challenge at the defendant's nonpromotion policy, as there is no statistical data that can show that Covington's nonpromotion policy adversely impacted African-American staff attorneys,” Walton wrote.