A Korean-American former shareholder at Greenspoon Marder who lost his job last year is suing the law firm for racial discrimination, alleging that the Florida-based firm and the New York boutique it acquired in 2016 systematically denied him opportunities because of his race.
In a complaint filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, Jun Chul Whang outlined a history of alleged discriminatory conduct over the 24 years he spent at Jacob, Medinger & Finnegan that he claims continued when the firm was acquired by Greenspoon in April 2016. Whang said that the same partners who withheld opportunities at Jacob Medinger were also responsible for his termination from Greenspoon.
“Greenspoon’s decision to terminate Whang was not a unilateral one based on neutral business needs, but rather, one involving a conscious, measured decision to terminate Whang versus the white attorneys/partners in his practice group,” his attorney, Veronica Jung, contended in the complaint.
Jung declined to comment on the case. But she noted that in the past year, she’s seen an uptick in the number of similar claims put forth by Asian-Pacific attorneys.
“In my practice, most of the cases that we resolve on behalf of high-level and often high-profile employees get resolved out of sight—in prelitigation,” she said.
That, obviously, was not the case for Whang.
A litigator whose practice focuses on product liability defense, Whang started work with Jacob Medinger in 1992. According to the complaint, the firm focused on representing tobacco companies, with Imperial Tobacco serving as its largest client before the 2016 merger with Greenspoon.
Whang contends that he was a valuable contributor to the firm, bringing in new medical and scientific experts to aid in litigation and attracting other Korean-American attorneys who helped the firm attract new high-end corporate clients.
But he said that he faced overt discrimination with the firm. One example was when the firm’s local counsel for a case in Poland asked for him to be taken off the matter, advising against having a lead attorney of Asian descent. Whang says the attorneys at Jacob Medinger acknowledged this request was offensive and discriminatory, but complied nonetheless.
Whang also said that it took him 12 years to become a nonequity partner and another 10 years to become an equity partner, when it only took white attorneys between one and five years to make that second jump. He contended that when the promotion finally came, it was not to reward him for service by allowing him to share in the firm’s profits, but rather to defray the firm’s potential liabilities.
His promotion came shortly before Jacob Medinger was acquired by Greenspoon, which was home to approximately 180 attorneys at the time. When that happened, the firm’s other four equity partners received a payment representing return on equity; as the newest equity partner, Whang, did not, according to the complaint.
Whang continued to be a productive attorney at Greenspoon, the complaint says, with new clients coming on board and Imperial Tobacco poised to increase the legal budget for Whang’s practice group in 2018.
But instead he was terminated in May. Whang said that he was told by Tim Finnegan, a name partner at Jacob Medinger, that the decision came from the firm’s executive committee and was made to cut costs. But Whang was unconvinced, arguing that the Florida-based executive committee would have needed input from the New York team to determine who to cut loose.
“Specifically, given the significant increase in workload for plaintiff Whang’s team on Imperial Tobacco matters, it is implausible that Greenspoon’s executive committee would make decisions about terminating senior lawyers on plaintiff Whang’s team without discussing the matter with plaintiff Whang’s JMF colleagues,” the complaint said.
Whang also compared Greenspoon’s treatment of him with how it handled Finnegan, who was close to retirement. While Finnegan, unlike Whang, was not involved in business development activities for Greenspooon, and had a smaller caseload, he was offered the opportunity to stay with the firm in an “of counsel” role, the suit claims. Whang did not receive this invitation and was fired with only 10 days’ notice, according to the complaint.
Whang asserts that the sudden termination has left him with no job and diminished prospects, nearly eight months later.
A spokeswoman for Greenspoon did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.