A federal judge in San Francisco has found that a former nonequity shareholder of national labor and employment firm Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart is bound by the firm’s arbitration agreement after she failed to opt out of it.
U.S. District Judge William Orrick III of the Northern District of California on Wednesday found that Dawn Knepper, who filed a proposed $300 million gender discrimination class action against the firm almost a year ago, was subject to the firm’s arbitration agreement after she continued to work at Ogletree past the deadline to sign and return a form opting out of it.
Knepper’s lawyers at Sanford Heisler Sharp had maintained that she hadn’t read emails pointing employees to the firm’s arbitration agreement and the opt-out form. Knepper, who is now a shareholder at Buchalter in Orange County, submitted a declaration stating that if she had known she needed to opt out of the agreement to avoid arbitration she would have done so.
“That Knepper—an experienced employment law attorney—may not have read or fully comprehended the contents of those emails and their attachments does not preclude a determination that she is bound by the Arbitration Agreement,” wrote Orrick in a 15-page opinion.
“While Knepper’s experience as an employment law attorney may not be dispositive, it is significant and weighs in favor of concluding that she is facially covered by the Arbitration Agreement,” the judge continued. “Knepper’s attempt to analogize Ogletree’s actions to situations where defendants attempt to impose arbitration on unsophisticated workers or on consumers is not well-taken.”
Orrick’s decision transfers the case to the Central District of California since Knepper worked in Ogletree’s Orange County office and the majority of defense witnesses in the case are based there. Ogletree’s lawyers at Paul Hastings have indicated that they intend to ask to compel arbitration once the case is transferred to the Central District.
Nancy Abell at Paul Hastings, who has been representing the firm in the case, passed along a request for comment to a firm representative who said in an email that the firm was “pleased with the ruling.”
“Equal opportunity has been a core principle of Ogletree Deakins since the firm’s founding, and we do not tolerate discrimination of any kind—gender or otherwise,” the firm representative said. “We will confidently defend the firm against these allegations as we remain steadfast in our commitment to equal opportunity for all.”
Sanford Heisler Sharp’s David Sanford had asked Orrick for leave to amend the complaint in Knepper’s case to add four additional plaintiffs, including former equity shareholder Tracy Warren, who also worked out of Ogletree’s Orange County office.
“We remain convinced that Ogletree botched its own arbitration agreement and engaged in systemic gender discrimination against its female partners,” said Sanford, via email. “There are many current and former Ogletree partners (male and female) who will testify on our behalf.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly referred to David Sanford as David Heisler.