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Former employee sues Jones Day law firm for race discrimination, racial harassment, and retaliation

On September 21, former Jones Day employee, Jaki Nelson, filed a race discrimination and harassment lawsuit against the law firm.  Nelson alleges that “Jones Day’s Los Angeles office HR is out of control and, in fact, openly operated and condoned a regime of favoritism based on race, and bullied anyone who dared to complain about unfair treatment thereby creating an intimidating and hostile work atmosphere for all employees of color, and towards Plaintiff in particular.”

Nelson, who worked at Jones Day from November 1992 until June 2010, claims that she “was the victim of a double standard of treatment with respect to her use of the firm’s medical leave policy because of her race” and that she “failed to receive appropriate compensation, bonuses and other fringe benefits equal to non-African American secretaries who possessed the same years of experience and skills as Plaintiff.”

After Nelson complained about what she perceived to be unfair treatment, she claims that she suffered retaliation and was further harassed by Suzanne Zamel, Jones Day’s Human Resources Manager, Lisa Takata, Jones Day’s Office Administrator, and Pat Miller, Jones Day’s HR Coordinators and/or Secretarial Supervisor.

Nelson also claims that she “was repeatedly exposed to…racist remarks in the Jones Day Los Angeles office” and that Frederick “Rick” McKnight, the Managing Partner-in-Charge of Jones Day’s Los Angeles office, “tolerated racist attitudes and conduct in the workplace.”   In her complaint, Nelson makes the following allegations:

Plaintiff is informed and believes that McKnight himself loudly proclaimed one day that “A nigger robbed me!” when discussing a situation when he was allegedly robbed.

Plaintiff is informed and believes that McKnight engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct with Jones Day employees, including a young African American female, which seriously eroded his credibility and leadership in the Los Angeles office.

[Pat] Miller has a horrible reputation in the Los Angeles office for mistreating employees of color, including Plaintiff, other support staff and several attorneys.  Whenever Miller or other Caucasian employees had a complaint, their complaints were immediately investigated by HR.  In contrast, Plaintiff’s complaints were ignored, not investigated and/or never taken seriously. 

Plaintiff returned from sick leave and learned that a Mexican American secretary had covered her desk.  Plaintiff asked Scott Behrendt, one of the Caucasian partners on Plaintiff’s desk, who had covered Plaintiff’s desk in her absence.  Behrendt said, “Can’t you smell the odor.”  Plaintiff said, “I am not sure what you are talking about.”  Then Behrendt said, “A dirty Mexican, can’t you smell her.”  Plaintiff immediately went to Sheila McKeowan, the Office Administrator, and reported Behrendt’s inappropriate comment.  Later, Behrendt also retaliated against Plaintiff by having her removed from her desk assignment because he was furious about Plaintiff reporting his offensive behavior to the Office Administrator.  Behrendt would slam doors in Plaintiff’s face and aggressively walk towards her causing her to move swiftly out of the way in order to avoid getting run into.

Behrendt and Reed Aljian, another Caucasian attorney, then undertook a campaign of harassment against Emery Elhabiby, an Attorney of Egyptian ancestry, which Plaintiff witnessed.  Plaintiff observed Aljian and Behrendt constantly joke about and give Elhabiby a hard time by walking past his office and taunting him.

When Elhabiby went to Plaintiff in distress, Plaintiff suggested that he should speak to the managing partner.  After the meeting, Elhabiby told Plaintiff that McKnight told him, “We never wanted you here, but you just did not get it.  Out of all the attorneys, you are the worst performing associate.  You are horrible.”  Elhabiby left the firm and filed an EEOC complaint.  Jones Day has a pattern and practice of dismissing or forcing African Americans who are perceived not to “fit in” to leave the firm in significantly disproportionate numbers to non-African Americans.

Plaintiff learned that Nicole Thomas, an African American attorney, was also victimized by offensive remarks from Aljian.  Thomas informed Plaintiff that one day she opened the door and Aljian ran up behind her and said, “Hold dah doe,” using a slave-type affect.  Thomas and Plaintiff were both offended by Aljian’s behavior.

Jim Childs, a Senior Partner, repeatedly called Plaintiff into his office for alleged “mistakes.”  On one occassion, Childs called Plaintiff into his office and angrily said, “What is this?”  Plaintiff responded, “Mr. Childs, I do not know what you are talking about.”  Childs then snatched the glasses off of Plaintiff’s face while saying “You need to get some new fucking glasses!”

Nelson claims that she was unexpectedly called into a meeting with Zamel and Takata on May 23, 2007.  Despite having previously received “very good performance evaluations,” Nelson alleges that Zamel and Takata took turns “berating, harassing, and yelling” and “hurling demeaning insults” at Nelson.  Zamel allegedly told Nelson “that this was ‘pay back'” for her having complained about the conduct of certain people at Jones Day, and she allegedly “falsely accused [Nelson] of “time-sheet fraud, bad attendance, chronic lateness and excessive phone and internet usage.”

Nelson claims that she almost suffered a nervous breakdown after that meeting, and she filed an internal complaint on May 29, 2007 citing “multiple instances of retaliation, disparate treatment and harassment against her due to her race.”  Nelson requested a conference call with David Williams, the Firm-wide Human Resources Director and Counsel based in the Washington D.C. office of Jones Day, and another employment attorney from Jones Day’s Los Angeles office to discuss her complaints.  According to the complaint, “Williams stated that he had completed his “investigation” and he had reviewed Plaintiff’s personnel file twice and basically indicated that everything was Plaintiff’s fault.  He said that Plaintiff had a problem getting along with people and that the firm had done her a favor by not taking action against her.”

Nelson filed an initial charge of discrimination, retaliation and harassment with the EEOC on August 29, 2007.  She filed subsequent charges with the EEOC and DFEH on March 25, 2009 and August 13, 2010.

On June 15, 2010, Nelson was terminated together with about 30 other employees in what was reported as a layoff.

Former employee sues Jones Day law firm for race discrimination, racial harassment, and retaliation
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