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Beckman spent nearly half her life at Ruden McClosky Smith Schuster & Russell, starting in 1970 when there were only eight lawyers at the Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based firm. Working her way up from receptionist to administrator of the Fort Lauderdale office, Beckman watched the firm grow to become the largest in Broward County, with 175 attorneys and 10 offices in Florida and in Venezuela. Beckman sued the law firm in U.S. District Court in July, alleging she was the victim of age and gender discrimination, replaced by a younger man who earned more than her. She is suing under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Florida Civil Rights Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Equal Pay Act. “I don’t think a firm should be letting go of someone who was a loyal and dedicated worker for 30 years,” said Beckman, 63. “It was not fair. Someone wanted me out of there.” But Schuster, the firm’s managing partner, denied Beckman was a victim of discrimination. He said the decision to fire her was purely an economic one, that she was part of a handful of layoffs — some of them male — at the beginning of last year. “Of course it doesn’t look fair when a person is let go after 30 years,” he said, “but when you have a company with 500 employees, not everyone is going to be here forever. I don’t know why anyone would think they would be with a company forever.” This lawsuit is the latest trouble for Ruden McClosky, which, ironically, was plagued with bad headlines last year for sanctions against one of its partners Barry Mandelkorn, in connection with discrimination lawsuits the firm filed against Ocean Spray and BellSouth. In the BellSouth case, 62 employees hired Mandelkorn, paralegal Brian Neiman and lawyers Norman Ganz and James Seltzer to sue BellSouth for racial discrimination. A $1.5 million settlement was reached in 1997, with the legal team getting $1 million of that. The plaintiffs complained to a federal judge about the settlement and he imposed sanctions against the lawyers. They also sued Mandelkorn and the firm. In the Ocean Spray case, a federal judge sanctioned Mandelkorn and the firm in 2001 for filing a frivolous racial discrimination lawsuit against the company in 1998. Neiman and Ganz were involved in that case, too. 1998 HIRING Beckman said she loved her job, which encompassed hiring office staff, running the summer associate program, ordering furniture, preparing offices for new partners and placing secretaries with partners. Beckman also organized most of the charitable events, such as walk-a-thons. “It was a fast-paced environment,” she said. “There were always new challenges.” Beckman also became friends with many of the lawyers, including Schuster; both jogged and participated in walk-a-thons together. Then Richard Jablonski was hired in January 1998 to act as the firm’s first full-time human resources director for the entire firm. In addition to having a college degree, the then 49-year-old had worked for a Michigan law firm and “had considerable experience as a human resources director for large organizations,” according to Ruden’s response to the lawsuit. Schuster said he doesn’t know whether Beckman applied for the job, but said she lacked the education the job required. About a year after he started, Jablonski told David Lane, executive director of the firm, that he was going to resign because he could not work with Beckman, according to the complaint. He said he was uncomfortable that he and Beckman “continued to have the same job duties,” according to the complaint. The next day, Beckman was asked to meet with Lane and Jablonski to resolve the matter because the firm did not want Jablonski to quit. But Schuster said the dispute had nothing to do with Beckman’s firing, pointing out that Beckman was fired two years after Jablonski’s remark. Schuster said it was simply an economic decision: Fearing a downturn in the economy, the firm wanted to tighten its belt. Since Jablonski could take over all of Beckman’s functions, it made no sense to keep her around, he said. “We could make her a runner, or a messenger, for half her salary, but that’s about it,” he said. Beckman disagrees. “I was told there was plenty of work for both of us,” she said. Schuster said he hated having to fire Beckman. “If anyone felt badly about the need to eliminate her position, it was me,” he said. “We used to run together.” But he said the firm was generous, offering Beckman six months’ severance pay, which is practically unheard of at the firm. They also offered to allow Beckman to remain on during the six months and look for a new job, possibly even helping her find one, and giving her a good reference, he said. “We let her down on as soft as a pillow as we could,” he said. He asked her what she wanted them to tell the staff. She said to say she retired. Beckman chose to clean out her desk the next day, which was a Saturday. Schuster said he never heard from her again. Schuster said Beckman appeared to take the news well, but she said she was actually numb for three or four days. “I didn’t want to stay,” she said. “My heart wasn’t in it. I was really hurt. I’ve been depressed.” Beckman has since moved to Oklahoma to be near her daughter. She hasn’t been able to find a job. “There are a lot of young people with families who need jobs worse than I do,” she said. According to her lawsuit, “age was a motivating or contributing factor” in her firing and “the defendant was looking to staff its positions with younger workers who would have a longer future with the department.” The fact that Ruden is a law firm only makes the situation worse, according to her suit: “Defendant is a sophisticated employer which has actual knowledge of the requirements of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.” Her lawyer, G. Ware Cornell of Cornell & Associates in Fort Lauderdale, said he filed the lawsuit in federal court because he was concerned that the firm would have undue influence in state court. “Federal judges are appointed for life and don’t take campaign contributions,” he said. The suit is before U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore. Ruden is represented by Manny Garcia, a partner at the Hollywood firm Abrams Anton, who is being paid by the firm’s liability insurer. To make his point that Beckman was not a victim of age discrimination, Schuster points to the fact that Jablonski is not that much younger than Beckman. Additionally, Beckman was never replaced, he added. Schuster said he was “absolutely shocked” that Beckman sued, and added that he did not make her sign a release before the firm paid her severance pay. When asked how he would feel if he was let go, Schuster, who has worked for the firm for 40 years, said, “I wouldn’t be happy about it. But if everything was done right, I certainly wouldn’t sue.”

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