A former project attorney at Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott who unsuccessfully sued the firm for wrongful termination lost her appeal yesterday before the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.
A three-judge panel found (PDF) that Katherine Wallace failed to present enough evidence to support her claims that she was fired for refusing to produce shoddy work in the name of higher productivity. Wallace had alleged that the firm's demands would have caused her to not only break the law, but also violate the D.C. Rules of Professional Conduct.
Wallace, now a local solo practitioner, declined to comment, saying she hadn't had a chance yet to review the opinion. The firm, through lead counsel John May of Washington's Jordan Coyne & Savits, declined to comment.
According to the opinion, Wallace was hired in 2007 to review and translate documents in German and other languages for product liability cases involving one of Eckert's clients. After about a year, she was fired. The firm claimed that her productivity was too far below other attorneys working on the same project – Wallace was reviewing an average of five documents per hour, according to the opinion, compared to the 8.5 to 12 documents other attorneys were reviewing on average per hour.
The firm had set a new goal for project attorneys to review 15 to 20 documents per hour, but told reviewers that this new goal wasn't meant to be a quota. Wallace argued in her lawsuit that, given the complexity of the work done by foreign-language attorneys, the firm should have known that the new productivity goal would force reviewers to compromise the quality of their work.
Eckert told Wallace that she could keep her job if she said she would improve her performance. Wallace refused, according to the opinion, explaining that to do so would lead her to violate ethics rules and engage in fraud when it came to representing the quality of her work to clients. She sued the firm in District of Columbia Superior Court in July 2008; Judge Natalia Combs Greene granted the firm summary judgment and dismissed the case in August 2010, prompting Wallace's appeal.
Senior Judge Annice Wagner, writing for the court, found that Wallace's claims that the firm's demands would cause her to violate professional conduct rules were "conclusory assertions" not supported by evidence. For instance, Wagner noted that Wallace hadn't presented evidence that attorneys who were meeting the productivity standards were instructed or felt forced to violate the law or ethics rules.
The appeals court found that because Eckert had offered Wallace the opportunity to stay on if she met the same standards required of other project attorneys, she couldn't prove that she was fired for a reason that would violate public policy.
Wallace also claimed that she was discriminated against for having a disability – she had foot surgery that required an extended recovery, according to the opinion – and because of her race (she is African American), age and sex. The appeals court agreed with the trial judge that the foot surgery didn't qualify as a disability under the Human Rights Act and found that Wallace had failed to allege that the firm treated other employees in a similar situation as Wallace differently because of their race, age or sex; the court noted that the other project attorney the firm wanted to fire besides Wallace for low productivity was a white man.
Chief Judge Eric Washington and Senior Judge Inez Smith Reid also heard the case.