Claims Narrowed in Ex-Associate's Suit Against Quinn

Claims Narrowed in Ex-Associate's Suit Against Quinn Sign in offices of Quinn Emanuel Urquhard & Sullivan

A unanimous state appeals panel has dismissed a retaliation claim that is part of a discrimination suit filed by a black former contract attorney against Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, ruling that the claim is barred because a federal judge dismissed a similar claim last year.

The Appellate Division, First Department, ruling in Simmons-Grant v. Quinn Emanuel, 150935/13, does not affect the discrimination claim pending in Manhattan Supreme Court that was not at issue in the appeal.

Justice Rolando Acosta (See Profile) wrote for the panel, joined by Justices Dianne Renwick (See Profile), David Saxe (See Profile), Leland DeGrasse (See Profile) and Rosalyn Richter (See Profile).

The plaintiff, Kisshia Simmons-Grant, was hired as an hourly staff attorney at Quinn Emanuel in 2006. She resigned in 2010.

Simmons-Grant originally sued the firm in 2011 in the Southern District of New York. According to the suit, she was one of a pool of about 20 to 25 attorneys hired to work on discovery, document review and other legal work. The attorneys were assigned all their work by their supervisor, and paid by the hour. She claimed that her supervisor routinely assigned more work to white staff attorneys than to her, although they were not more qualified. She claims that at times, she was given no work, meaning that she earned no income (NYLJ, Nov. 1, 2011).

In February 2010, Simmons-Grant complained to the managing partner of Quinn Emanuel’s New York office, Peter Calamari, who met with her supervisor and decided that there was no discrimination.

In July 2010, Simmons-Grant was assigned to work on a document review matter with another attorney on a Saturday. She alleges that this attorney became furious and physically threatening, to the point where she was afraid to work with him, and that she asked to be reassigned.

She said she met with a senior discovery attorney and the New York office manager about her concerns, but they refused to reassign her immediately. They did, however, propose other solutions, such as making sure she did not work with the person she found threatening, and scheduling a 20-minute buffer between their shifts. She alleges that this treatment was retaliation for her earlier complaint about discrimination, and that it forced her to quit.

Her federal suit brought claims under Title VII of the Civil Right Act and under the New York City Human Rights Law (HRL). Southern District Judge Laura Taylor Swain (See Profile) granted Quinn Emanuel’s motion for summary judgment on the federal claim in January 2013 (NYLJ, Jan. 9, 2013). She declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the City Human Rights Law claims.

Simmons-Grant then filed the City Human Rights Law claims in a new lawsuit in state court. Quinn Emanuel moved to dismiss the retaliation claim on collateral estoppel grounds, arguing that the issue was already decided in federal court.

On April 30, 2013, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Joan Kenney (See Profile) denied the firm’s motion, holding that the district court “never addressed the issues and the factual findings” as they relate to the City Human Rights Law, a broader law than Title VII.

However, Acosta wrote that the city law retaliation claim depended on a single fact—whether Simmons-Grant’s supervisors could easily have reassigned her immediately to another project in July 2010. That issue, Acosta said, had already been litigated in district court.

“In the unique circumstances of this case, it is appropriate to estop plaintiff from relitigating the issue of whether an immediate reassignment was possible,” Acosta wrote. “Consequently, by being precluded from arguing that an immediate reassignment was possible, plaintiff will be unable to prove that the challenged failure to reassign occurred, in whole or in part, because of retaliation. As the failure to immediately transfer plaintiff is the sole action or failure to act that comprises the entirety of plaintiff’s City HRL retaliation claim in this action, that retaliation claim is herewith dismissed.”

The firm is represented by Lawrence Sandak, a partner at Proskauer Rose, and Alychia Buchan, an associate at that firm.

Simmons-Grant is represented by James Halter, a partner at Liddle & Robinson.

The attorneys could not be reached for comment.