As the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has become more aggressive, Seyfarth Shaw has developed a reputation as one of the law firms companies seek out to protect themselves.
When the agency targeted Kaplan Higher Education Corp. for alleged racial discrimination in its hiring, the company tapped Seyfarth partners Gerald Maatman Jr., Pamela Devata and Chicago office managing partner David Rowland. Kaplan stood accused of using credit checks to disqualify African-American job applicants. In discovery, the attorneys learned that the EEOC considers credit history in its own hiring process. The Seyfarth attorneys convinced U.S. District Judge Patricia Gaughan to dismiss.
"We certainly view it as a significant defeat for the EEOC, one that should cause them to rethink some of their focus on hiring lawsuits," Seyfarth managing partner and chairman J. Stephen Poor said in an interview.
In 30-plus years of practicing labor and employment law, Poor has seen the EEOC go through cycles of aggressive enforcement under both Democratic and Republican administrations. "The extent of their litigation side has gone in cycles depending upon enforcement dollars and the administration's view," Poor said.
Chicago-based Seyfarth was founded upon labor and employment law and it remains central to its culture. "We were the first labor-and-employment firm in Chicago and we remain the largest practice in Chicago," Poor said. "We have 110 lawyers that do labor and employment. It is our roots; it is where we started and remains the epicenter for us." And the practice is busier than ever. Chicago attorneys are handling close to 1,200 matters, including 75 class actions, Poor said.
In another employment case, the firm defended Family Dollar Stores Inc. in a sex discrimination class action alleging that female employers received unequal pay. Armed with the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 ruling in Wal-Mart v. Dukes, Maatman convinced the court to dismiss the class action under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Pay Act.
"Dukes really did set a higher threshold for a certification of classes in employment matters and, one might argue, class actions generally," Poor said. "What is unique about Family Dollar was that we were able to get that ruling at the motion-to-dismiss stage. It was at the stage where we did it without incurring the millions of dollars in discovery fees. What is good for the client is good for us."
One EEOC tactic has been to restrict depositions of claimants, thereby making the defense rely upon expert testimony. The agency used a similar tactic in accusing DHL Express (USA) Inc. of discriminating against African-American employees. Seyfarth partners Camille Olson and Richard Lapp disqualified some of the 94 claimants and then filed a motion to compel deposition of the rest. The court agreed.
Olson and Lapp teamed up to represent Aaron Rents Inc. in its appeal of a sexual harassment case that resulted in a $95 million jury verdict. The appeal was successful and in March 2012 the parties reached a settlement worth $6 million.
In 2011, the EEOC filed a human trafficking suit against Kauai Coffee Co. and five other coffee producers in Hawaii. The agency contended that the companies lured Thai farm workers to come to the United States with the promise of agriculture jobs and temporary visas. Upon their arrival in the United States, the employers allegedly took their passports and forced them to live in inhumane conditions. In November 2012, a federal judge ruled that the agency must apply a 300-day statute of limitations when it comes to demonstrating a pattern of discrimination. By busting the alleged human trafficking violations, Maatman was able to reduce the coffee companies' exposure to financial liability.
Chicago-based partner William Dugan and associate Abigail Flynn-Kozara represented electronic-trading company Getco LLC before a three-person arbitration panel of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority in Chicago. Getco was facing a $100 million lawsuit by a former trader, alleging he was entitled to one percent of firm profits. The panel ultimately dismissed all claims.
"We make strategic decisions and roll up our sleeves and work to get the results that our clients need," Poor said. "We know that there are key decision points that we need to get to. Often times, it means getting into the detail and the weeds for the right decision point."
Seyfarth is always developing new strategies. "You have to be able to have the skill sets and the technology to be able to handle that business problem for the client," Poor said. "We have staked out a position in the market that we are different and innovative. In the labor and employment space, that is built on top of superb lawyers and a long history, and that has worked for us."
And despite several pro-business decisions by the Supreme Court during the last few terms, Poor remains confident that there will always be a demand for labor and employment lawyers. "It's an interesting field where the standards and applications shift over time, reflecting sociopolitical evolutions," he said. "What that means down the road is that companies always have employees and issues, and we're always there to help them." — Matthew Huisman
KEYS TO SUCCESS
"Understand and be relentlessly focused on the goals and business objectives of your client."
"In litigation, develop and execute a strategy around key decision points."
"Be consistently creative and innovative — and clearly communicate that vision."
"Combine a passion for servicing clients with metrics to refine performance."
"Utilize the strength of the team and cultivate the intangibles: focus, discipline and the will to win."
"Don't be afraid to try something new."
"Have a passion towards servicing your clients."
— J. Stephen Poor, chairman and managing partner, Seyfarth Shaw