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Claiming “zero tolerance” for sexual harassment is a common way for law firms to declare their hard-line approach if such a problem occurs within their own organizations. But a lawsuit filed by a former Blank Rome associate demonstrates the gray areas that can emerge when bad conduct comes from big clients. The case pending in New York federal court alleges that Philadelphia-based Blank Rome fired associate Diana Goodman because she complained about the harassing behavior of three firm clients. It also alleges that the firm failed to take remedial action. Blank Rome has denied the claims, asserting that Goodman was fired for poor performance. The parties are scheduled for a conference next month. In the meantime, the case is serving as an example of the opposing tensions that law firm management has in addressing a worker’s allegations and maintaining viable relationships with important clients. Law firms are obligated to respond to an attorney’s complaints about a client’s unwanted behavior, but knowing how and when to confront the client about the allegations can be a delicate matter. “That conversation has to be pointed, but mindful of the circumstances,” said Paul Kennedy, a partner at San Francisco-based Littler Mendelson who is not involved in the Blank Rome matter. In general, law firms, like other places of business, are required to maintain an environment that is free from unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other sexual conduct. It also requires firms of 15 workers or more to have established policies and a clearly identified course of action for workers to make complaints. Many law firms tout a “zero tolerance” policy, meaning that their approach is stricter than the law requires. And while the responsibility to their workers usually pertains to the conduct of those who work at the firm, the duty to provide a harassment-free environment also extends to the clients, which can complicate matters. “It gets much more bureaucratic,” said Benedict Morelli, with Morelli Ratner in New York. Morelli, also not involved in the Blank Rome case, recently represented television producer Andrea Mackris in a sexual harassment suit against celebrity journalist Bill O’Reilly, who counter-sued for defamation. The case settled. In attempting to handle the attorney’s allegations while simultaneously preserving the client relationship should those allegations prove unfounded, the situation can become mired in committee meetings and partner confabs, Morelli said. But a firm’s obligation to investigate is an important piece of the process, Kennedy said, as are its requirements to remedy the situation and to guard against it happening in the future. He added, however, that when the problem implicates a key client, the “fallout” from confronting the client can become a factor in the firm’s decision about how to proceed. “The economic interests can have a great deal of impact,” he said. Firms handle loutish client behavior in a variety of ways, Kennedy explained, including addressing the problem with higher-ups at the client firm and reassigning the attorney to other matters. SEPARATE CAUSE OF ACTION Yet the worst approach a firm can take, Morelli said, is to terminate workers, as happened in the Goodman case, after they complained of harassment. “Once the person in question who complains gets fired, that’s a separate cause of action,” he said, adding that when the firing happens, the question of whether any actionable harassment occurred becomes irrelevant. “If the complaint precipitated the firing, that’s retaliatory,” Morelli said. In Goodman v. Blank Rome, 05-CV-3504, the former associate is suing the 459-lawyer firm and partners Michael Mullman and Emanuel Adler. Goodman alleges, in part, that during one meeting executives of a design company talked about prostitutes and that one individual said that his “member” was tired from overuse. She also claims that at one point Adler directed her to go to the hotel room where the chief executive officer of a publicly traded company was staying to obtain his signature on a document, even though she told Adler that she was concerned about the task. Once there, she alleges, the client opened the door, clad in only a short bathrobe, although he knew she was coming to his room. The next day, Goodman claims, the client stated in front of others that he “fucked with [her] head last night,” and that “it was so funny to see [her] so embarrassed.” Goodman also contends that as the only woman associate in her practice group, she was not given as much work as her male peers. She asserts that the firm ignored her initial complaint in July 2003 about the alleged harassment. She further charges that in October 2003, Mark Blondman, an employment partner at the firm, contacted her about her complaints but did not attend a scheduled meeting and did not notify her that he would be absent. The meeting took place about a month later, her complaint states, but no remedial action by the firm followed. Goodman was fired in January 2004, a week after her attorney sent a letter to the firm’s chairman, David Girard-diCarlo, regarding her discrimination complaint, her lawsuit alleges. Blondman said last week that Goodman was terminated based solely on her performance, and that the firm has a zero-tolerance policy regarding sexual harassment. He also said that the firm contacted all of the parties involved about her complaints. “Even if you have some question about veracity of the allegations, you always go back and say something to the people involved,” Blondman said. The firm’s answer to the complaint asserts that Goodman failed to take advantage of “corrective opportunities,” and failed to “avoid the harm which she alleged to have suffered.” Goodman’s attorney, Daniel Kaiser, with Kaiser Saurborn & Mair in New York, said that his client felt that she had no choice but to file the lawsuit. “She was outraged by the conduct,” he said. “She had to speak up for herself.” Goodman, he said, is working as in-house counsel making “a little more than half” her salary at Blank Rome. Leigh Jones is a reporter with The National Law Journal, a Recorder affiliate based in New York City.

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