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A dozen current and former accounting staffers at New York’s Shearman & Sterling have sued the firm, claiming racial discrimination. For the plaintiffs there may be strength in numbers. But the litigation got off to a faltering start, thanks to opposition from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In a federal suit filed in Manhattan in November and a related state claim filed in August, the plaintiffs — 11 African Americans and one Hispanic — claim that Shearman’s controller, Kenneth Johnsen, systematically discriminated against minorities in his department. Although the federal suit accuses the firm itself of “paying white employees markedly higher salaries for performing the same functions in the same job titles as minority employees,” the only lawyer mentioned in the complaint is Shearman’s diversity management attorney, Anna Brown. One plaintiff alleges that she brought the complaints about the accounting division to Brown. The next day, the suit claims, Johnsen ignored the would-be plaintiff altogether, “leading her to believe that her confidences had not been kept by Brown.” In August, however, the defense got at least a psychic boost when the EEOC took the unusual step of issuing a detailed rebuttal of the claims. Shearman took heart that the EEOC didn’t simply green-light the case for court, as it usually does when it declines to take up a plaintiff’s cause. “We agree with the EEOC that none of the complaints is supported by the facts,” says firm spokesman Ed Burke. The plaintiffs’ lawyer, though, is undeterred. “Even though there is no smoking gun found, it doesn’t mean there’s no merit to your claim,” says Harvey Mars of New York’s Leibowitz & Mars. But it does mean that Mars has his work cut out for him in convincing a jury — if he gets that far.

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