An employment discrimination and wrongful termination suit filed in California against Bingham McCutchen by a former associate afflicted with a rare sleep disorder has settled.
Hartwell Harris, a litigation associate in Bingham’s Santa Monica office from 2007 until 2011, sued the firm in Los Angeles Superior Court in November 2011. Bingham litigation partner Seth Gerber and entertainment, media and communications chair Jonathan Loeb—both of whom are based in Santa Monica, where Loeb serves as the firm’s office managing partner—were also named as defendants.
In the suit, which she announced via a press release issued by her attorney and former law school classmate Tamara Freeze of Southern California’s Workplace Justice Advocates, Harris claimed that after working at Bingham for three years she developed Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome in April 2010 and was placed on disability. (Harris began her legal career at Santa Monica’s Alschuler Grossman, which Bingham absorbed in January 2007.)
According to Harris’ complaint, the firm then put her on unpaid leave before terminating her in February 2011, making no effort to accommodate her illness by offering flexible hours or the option of telecommuting. For its part, Bingham said publicly that it had “made reasonable attempts to work with her,” according to our previous reports.
Freeze was out of the office Friday and unavailable for comment, though she and another attorney representing Harris, J. Bernard Alexander III of Santa Monica’s Alexander Krakow + Glick, confirmed via email that the litigation had settled. A Bingham spokeswoman also told The Am Law Daily that the case has been resolved and declined further comment.
Harris, who attended the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law with Freeze, could not be reached for comment. Neither a call to a Santa Monica phone number listed on the website for her solo practice nor an email message was immediately returned. According to records on file with The State Bar of California, Harris is now based in Winona, Miss.
Terms of the settlement, which was first reported late Thursday by the Santa Monica Patch, were not disclosed. The resolution of the case comes roughly four months after a state court judge in Los Angeles slapped Bingham with $2,340 in sanctions for delaying the discovery process, according to a report at the time by sibling publication The Recorder. Harris’ lawyers had requested $6,255 in sanctions.
Like many large firms faced with wrongful termination cases brought by former employees, Bingham moved to have Harris’ suit heard by an arbitrator rather than in court. But a three-judge panel of California’s Court of Appeal denied that motion in a unanimous decision on March 29, 2013, ruling that Bingham’s own arbitration agreement was invalid under Massachusetts law, where the firm had drafted its contract agreements. (Bingham, which has gone through a series of mergers over the past 20 years, has its roots in Boston.)
The firm, which was also ordered to pay Harris’ legal costs on appeal, filed a petition for a writ of certiorari from the U.S. Supreme Court last year to review the California appellate court’s ruling on the grounds that the Federal Arbitration Act preempts Massachusetts law. The Supreme Court denied Bingham’s cert request on January 13.
Debra Fischer, the Los Angeles–based chair of Bingham’s labor and employment practice and the firm’s administrative partner, handled the matter for Bingham, alongside of counsel Robert Brundage, counsel Jessica Boar and Linda Miller Savitt of Ballard Rosenberg Golper & Savitt in Glendale, Calif. David Salmons, chair of Bingham’s appellate practice, worked on the Supreme Court cert petition along with partner Bryan Killian in Washington, D.C.
Bingham has struggled in recent months with a spate of partner departures following a poor financial performance in 2013 that saw Bingham’s gross revenue fall 12.6 percent, to a six-year low of $762 million, while profits per partner plunged another 12.7 percent, to $1.475 million, according to The American Lawyer’s annual Am Law 100 reporting.
The firm’s leadership has acknowledged the bad year, which it attributes to the end of some key litigation matters and costs incurred by a new back-office operations center in Kentucky. Unlike many Am Law 100 firms reeling from the 2008 downturn, Bingham had been on a growth swing in recent years.
Court records show that a jury trial in the Harris case, which saw Bingham partners Gerber and Loeb dismissed as defendants late last year, was scheduled for September.