A federal judge in Manhattan has allowed sex discrimination claims to proceed against an intellectual property law firm that fired an associate two days after she complained in an e-mail to partners that the firm's women lawyers were being "relegated to non-partnership track support roles."
In a 53-page opinion issued last week, Southern District of New York Judge Kimba M. Wood said Catriona Collins had established a prima facie cases of discrimination and retaliation against her former firm, Cohen Pontani Lieberman & Pavane.
The judge said remarks by Cohen Pontani managing partner Martin B. Pavane that Collins was insufficiently "sweet" in dealing with a paralegal "could be construed as reflecting discriminatory animus."
"A reasonable jury could find that Pavane's statement indicates that (1) he holds stereotypes that women should be 'sweet' and non-aggressive, and (2) that Pavane believed that Plaintiff did not fit this stereotype," Wood wrote in Collins v. Cohen Pontani Lieberman & Pavane, 04 Civ. 8983.
Collins joined 30-lawyer Cohen Pontani as a litigation associate in 1997. A law graduate of both Dublin's Trinity College and Cambridge University, she had previously worked for nine years at the IP boutique then known as Hopgood Calimafde Kalil & Judlow, which was acquired by Morgan, Lewis & Bockius in 2002.
According to her November 2004 complaint, Collins was told in 1999 that she would never be promoted to partner, despite positive reviews, because the partners, all of whom were then men, were "uncomfortable" with her. The firm's Web site currently lists two female partners.
Collins claims she was thereafter passed over for work assignments that were instead given to male associates. This allegedly led to her having low billable hours, which the firm then cited in denying her salary increases.
On Sept. 16, 2003, Collins sent an e-mail to Cohen Pontani partners citing an article about the potential benefits of having women serve as lead counsel in patent litigation. She said Cohen Pontani was "behind the times" because women lawyers at the firm were not being given positions of responsibility.
She was terminated on Sept. 18, 2003. The firm claims it fired Collins that day because she sent a series of "insulting and unprofessional" e-mails to lawyers and paralegals distinct from her Sept. 16 message. According to Cohen Pontani, Collins had a history of clashing with other lawyers and staff and the Sept. 18 e-mails were the "last straw."
But Wood said there were inconsistencies in the record that suggested partners had decided to fire Collins after the Sept. 16 e-mail rather than the Sept. 18 ones. She noted that Pavane had testified that he had been "angered" by her Sept. 16 e-mail, calling it "obnoxious" and "just a ranting of somebody who is looking to set you up for litigation."
The judge also said the criteria that Cohen Pontani used to allocate work assignments and promote associates to partnership needed to be examined more closely.
The firm claims Collins was denied work assignments because she lacked the technical education necessary to handle them. But Wood noted that not all male partners at the firm had technical degrees and said it was unclear how important such a background was to the firm's main practice areas. At specialized IP firms, technical backgrounds are important for patent prosecution practices but are often regarded as less critical in litigation.
In a similar vein, the judge noted that Cohen Pontani's claims that it is a relatively diverse firm were based on expert analysis of a firm practicing primarily in the areas of industrial chemistry, pharmaceuticals and mechanical engineering. But Wood said this characterization of the firm's practices was in dispute.
She dismissed a number of Collins' claims on statute of limitations grounds. The judge said the firm's failure to promote Collins or raise her salary were discrete events that were time-barred with regard to alleged instances between 1997 and 2001. But claims relating to Cohen Pontani's failure to assign Collins work were timely, the judge said, because the firm's alleged failure constituted a continuing violation.
Cohen Pontani was represented by Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker. Neither Wilson Elser nor Pavane returned calls for comment.
Collins was represented by Bruce L. Atkins and Andrew Moskowitz of Deutsch Resnick in Hackensack, N.J.