The federal judge overseeing the gender discrimination case against Morrison & Foerster has denied the firm’s motion to sanction a former associate who signed a waiver of claims before suing the firm.
The firm claimed in a motion filed earlier this month that the associate, proceeding anonymously as Jane Doe 4, and her lawyers at Sanford Heisler Sharp brought claims that were “knowingly baseless,” due to the release she signed upon termination from the firm.
But U.S. Magistrate Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley of the Northern District of California, who was hearing arguments on a separate set of motions in the case Thursday, found that the Jane Doe plaintiff could sufficiently allege that she faced economic duress when signing the release about a month before her planned maternity leave. However, at the same time she denied Morrison & Foerster’s sanctions motion, Corley instructed lawyers at Sanford Heisler not to bring their own retaliatory motion against Morrison & Foerster.
“We’re just going to stop and move forward,” said Corley regarding the sanctions motions.
Lawyers from Sanford Heisler initially filed a class action complaint against Morrison & Foerster in April 2018 on behalf of three anonymous former associates in California, claiming the firm routinely stalls the careers of mothers and pregnant women and gives them lower pay and fewer promotion opportunities than their male peers.
Two associates who were the subject of Thursday’s arguments—Jane Doe 4 and Jane Doe 5—joined the case in January when the Sanford Heisler lawyers filed an amended complaint adding additional Jane Doe plaintiffs. The firm’s lawyers at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher argued the waiver Jane Doe 4 signed was valid and that Jane Doe 5′s state law claims were filed after the statute of limitations had run.
But Sanford Heisler’s Deborah Marcuse noted at Thursday’s hearing that Jane Doe 4 was her family’s primary source of income when she was informed she was being let go by the firm less than two months prior to her due date. Marcuse said her client’s family was forced to move into a smaller house as a result of her termination and that wasn’t reasonable to expect her to be able to find employment while eight months pregnant.
“There is a very material difference between a pregnant individual about to go out on leave and someone not in that position,” Marcuse said. Marcuse said her client had relied on the firm’s “highly advertised” leave policies in making decisions for her family. “Suddenly she’s being offered a contract on different terms: You can still get five months of leave, you just have to sign away all your legal rights to do it,” Marcuse said.
Corley pushed back against a suggestion from Morrison & Foerster’s lawyer that Jane Doe 4 was in a similar legal position as an at-will employee facing termination by their employer. “It’s certainly a reasonable inference that if you work and you get pregnant that you get to take that maternity leave,” the judge said.
The judge, however, warned Marcuse that if the case moves forward, her clients would have to be named under Ninth Circuit case law. “[There's] no question that it could have adverse effects on their career,” Corley said. “But that’s also the case for every single plaintiff who comes before me.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said that Jane Doe 4 had not found employment after her termination from Morrison & Foerster.