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Several of the partners that Sidley Austin Brown & Wood allegedly discriminated against on the basis of age have sought to sever themselves from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s suit against the law firm. Following a four-year investigation, the EEOC sued Sidley Austin in January, alleging that the firm demoted to counsel or forced to retire 32 partners because of their age, in violation of the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Sidley’s actions took place in 1999, when most of the affected partners were in their late 50s or early 60s. The lawsuit and the prior investigation focused attention on firm retirement policies as well as the centralized management structure of today’s large firms. But Sidley and at least some of the partners who allegedly experienced age bias are now concerned that attention is shifting to the personnel records of individual lawyers. Partners object Seven of the 32 partners filed formal objections to the EEOC’s request for their personnel files from the firm. At an Oct. 18 hearing in the case, Judge James Zagel of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois said that the objections were “largely based on the proposition that these individuals don’t want to be parties” in the case. One demoted partner wrote to EEOC lawyer Deborah Hamilton in a June 24 letter, asking her and the agency to “cease any representation of me” and “take whatever steps are appropriate to sever me from this action.” But EEOC lawyer Laurie Elkins wrote back to the partner pointing out that only the government was an actual party to the case. The affected class members for whom the EEOC is seeking relief, she said, are not parties and cannot therefore be severed. Zagel likewise rejected six of the seven partners’ objections at the Oct. 18 hearing. Elkins explained last week that the one partner whose objections were sustained had been under 40 when demoted by the firm and was therefore not subject to EEOC jurisdiction. Elkins said the lawyers’ personnel records were crucial to the case because Sidley was claiming the partners were demoted for performance reasons rather than age. She said the EEOC had just received the files for the affected partners and had not had a chance to go through them. But she said, “We do not expect our view of the case to change.” The exact contents of Sidley’s personnel files are not clear, but the files certainly contain information about billable hours, revenue origination and other measures of individual lawyer’s performance that could prove embarrassing. David Richards, one of the few demoted Sidley partners who have spoken publicly about the matter, said he thought the firm was trying to intimidate the affected class by also raising the prospect that information about sexual harassment complaints, alcoholism and other misconduct could emerge from the files. “I believe this is an unpleasant and unworthy attempt to rattle former partners that were told at the time they were let go because of age,” said Richards, now partner at Newark, N.J.-based McCarter & English.

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