A proposed gender discrimination class action filed against Greenberg Traurig late last year is off to a slow start, with lawyers for the two parties arguing over not just whether the case belongs in arbitration, but also which of two federal district court judges should decide that question.
Plaintiff Francine Friedman Griesing, a shareholder in Greenberg’s Philadelphia office from 2007 to 2010, filed her suit in the Southern District of New York on Dec. 4, claiming that the firm pays its female attorneys less than their male counterparts and that she was forced out after complaining about the allegedly unfair compensation practices. Greenberg, meanwhile, filed a petition in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania that same day seeking to compel arbitration, which the firm argues is required based on its partnership agreement.
At a court hearing Friday before Manhattan federal district court judge William Pauley III, Griesing’s attorney, David Sanford, argued that she be allowed her choice of venue as a so-called Title VII plaintiff, a reference to the federal law prohibiting employers from discriminating against those in protected classes.
"Ms. Griesing has chosen her forum, and it’s the Southern District," Sanford, a name partner at Sanford Heisler, said in an interview after the hearing. Though Greenberg is based in Florida, the firm’s chairman, Richard Rosenbaum, is based in New York, and Sanford says Griesing—despite working out of the Philadelphia office—was hired, evaluated and fired in New York.
Pauley appeared unconvinced that he should be the one to decide whether the case must be arbitrated, asking at one point, "Why shouldn’t this court wait for [Philadelphia federal district court judge Mitchell] Goldberg’s decision?"
Greenberg, represented at the hearing by Bettina Plevan of Proskauer Rose and William Jeffress of Baker Botts, argued that arbitration is the appropriate forum for the dispute, that it should occur in the city where Griesing worked, and that Goldberg should be the one to rule. "The plaintiff is trying to really manipulate the proceedings," Plevan, who often represents large law firms in employment-related litigation, said in court. (Reached after the hearing, Plevan had no additional comment).
In the end, Pauley set a schedule allowing both sides to file motions and rebuttals in support of their respective positions: Greenberg arguing that the case should be stayed pending Goldberg’s ruling, and Griesing—who currently has her own eight-attorney firm in Philadelphia—arguing that the case remain in New York for Pauley to rule on whether it belongs in arbitration, before moving on to merits of the complaint.
Pauley scheduled oral arguments related to the competing motions for Feb. 28.
For now, Griesing is the only plaintiff in the case, but Sanford said in court that he and his client expect others to join. As many as 217 plaintiffs, a group that includes former and current female shareholders dating to 2007, could be eligible, according to previous coverage of the suit in sibling publication The Legal Intelligencer.
To bolster his argument that the case remain in New York, Sanford said during the hearing that if Greenberg succeed in having the arbitration question decided in Philadelphia, the firm could make similar moves every time a new plaintiff joins the case by filing an arbitration petition in the lawyer’s home city. That, he said, would create chaos, with motions pending in jurisdictions around the country.
Griesing’s suit, which seeks $200 million in damages, follows an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission finding that the agency has "reasonable cause to believe" the firm discriminated against women. At Friday’s hearing, Plevan noted that the EEOC, which took three years to reach its decision, relied solely on a "box of documents" and has not interviewed any Greenberg attorneys.
Greenberg executive committee member Hilarie Bass called the suit "an affront to the accomplished, talented women of Greenberg Traurig," in an earlier statement provided to the Intelligencer. "It is nothing more than a financially motivated publicity stunt without merit, backed by neither fact nor law," Bass said.
For now, Francine Friedman Griesing is the only plaintiff in the case, but her attorney, David Sanford, said he and his client expect others to join.