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A U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois ordered the law firm Sidley Austin Brown & Wood (Sidley) to comply with an administrative subpoena issued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in the course of its investigation of possible violations of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA). The investigation was triggered by the report of a government informer within Sidley who complained that the firm had engaged in age bias when it demoted 32 partners to either “senior counsel” or “of counsel” in September 1999. The majority of the demoted partners were between the ages of 50 and 65. The firm also reportedly changed its retirement age from 65 to 60. Sidley is the nation’s sixth-largest law firm and employs nearly 1,400 attorneys. The EEOC’s memorandum in support of its application for an order to show cause against Sidley indicated that the law firm had repeatedly failed to comply with several requests for information pertaining to its September 1999 demotion plan, partnership agreements, the demoted partners, actual retirees and its retirement policies. Although Sidley cooperated with the subpoena to some degree by turning over information on its partnerships, the firm still withheld the rest of the material on the basis that the partners were not employees and, therefore, were not covered by the ADEA. The firm argued further that the documents involved private, confidential information. The EEOC argued that Sidley could not claim that the ADEA fails to cover the partners at the subpoena stage of litigation. According to the EEOC’s reply memorandum, two executive committees run the entire business of the firm without any voting input from the majority of the partners whatsoever. This arrangement is not typical of most law firms, said the EEOC, as most law partners have some say in law firm management, usually via some type of partnership voting process. Further, the designation of “partner” does not automatically indicate ownership control in a business, contended the agency. Factors such as whether a partner works independently or under supervision, votes on the compensation of partners, or bears any actual losses incurred by the firm also can be determinative of employer/employee status, insisted the EEOC. Therefore, according to the commission, the information the subpoena seeks will assist the EEOC and the court in determining whether the partners are owners or employees. If the older partners are found to be employees, then the EEOC appears to be prepared to argue for their protection from age bias under the ADEA. Federal Judge Joan Lefkow of the Northern District of Illinois agreed with the EEOC, and, on Feb. 11, 2002, ordered Sidley to produce the material. However, Sidley, through its attorneys Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker, of Los Angeles, vowed to appeal the ruling to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

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