Chadbourne & Parke at 1301 6th Ave, NYC
Chadbourne & Parke at 1301 6th Ave, NYC (Monika Kozak / NYLJ)

As Chadbourne & Parke and two female partners battle in court over discrimination claims, the firm continues to see head count changes, including the departure of a female project finance partner and the arrival of a bankruptcy attorney.

Margarita Oliva Sainz de Aja, who was a New York York-based international partner in Chadbourne’s corporate group and prominent project finance practice, left the firm in the last month. Oliva, who arrived at Chadbourne in 2013 from Allen & Overy, advises financial institutions and corporations on financings and transactions across Latin America, according to her former firm profile.

When reached Tuesday, Oliva said she is joining another firm as head of a practice group. She declined to name the firm, citing her new firm’s plans to announce her arrival within days. (Update: Baker McKenzie subsequently announced its hire of Oliva.)

Amid the backdrop of high lateral movement during the new year, Chadbourne continues to face accusations in court that it is not a traditional law firm that partners have control over, but a firm run by a “management committee [that] operates in secrecy and exercises control over partners’ work conditions and compensation,” according to court filings filed Monday.

Current litigation partner Kerrie Campbell and former Kiev office managing partner Jaroslawa Zelinsky Johnson have filed a $100 million proposed class action complaint against Chadbourne in the Southern District of New York, alleging the firm is run by an “all-male dictatorship” that pays women partners less and provides them fewer leadership opportunities than men.

Last November, Chadbourne asked U.S. District Judge J. Paul Oetken to dismiss the suit, arguing the entire premise of the case that the plaintiffs are employees who fall under employment discrimination laws is wrong. Instead, the firm said, Campbell and Johnson have been equity partners and owners who are not entitled to file suit against their own firm.

In a response Monday, Campbell and Johnson claimed that Chadbourne has jumped the gun.

Campbell and Johnson, represented by David Sanford of Sanford Heisler, said the determination of whether an individual is an employee under antidiscrimination laws is a “fact-intensive” inquiry and a court cannot properly analyze the issue when no discovery has been conducted.

“Plaintiffs seek all discovery relevant to the fact-intensive legal issue … namely the nature of the relationship between Chadbourne and its approximately 100 partners,” the two said.

Campbell and Johnson argued in court papers Monday that Chadbourne’s five-member management committee “comprises a centralized power center that directs and controls all material aspects of plaintiffs’ and the other partners’ employment and compensation.”

“The reality, as discovery will show, is that Chadbourne is run by a small, predominantly male, self-perpetuating management committee,” they said.

The plaintiffs are seeking a wide swath of law firm documents, which they say will help establish that Chadbourne sets the rules and regulations for the work of partners and interferes with partners’ management of their cases. Campbell and Johnson are also seeking documents they said will show partners are not entitled to a share of the firm’s profits or losses.

Such documents in discovery would include communications and information shared between members of Chadbourne’s management committee and documentation of deliberations, decisions or actions by the committee without disclosure to the general partnership, according to court papers filed Monday.

Campbell and Johnson are also asking to depose management committee members and partners who left Chadbourne in the last five years.

After the suit was filed in August, a group of female partners at Chadbourne wrote a letter to Sanford, the plaintiffs’ attorney in the case, criticizing him for not speaking with them and attempting to silence them for his own gain. “The complaint you crafted makes a group of very accomplished, assertive and intelligent professional women look like they are victims unable to hold their own with their male colleagues,” the letter said.

Fourteen female partners at Chadbourne signed the letter, but not Oliva, the project finance partner who recently left the firm.

In a brief interview, Oliva said Tuesday she didn’t know about the letter until it was already signed and sent. “I would have signed it, but I never got to know about it,” she said, noting that she hasn’t followed the litigation and her departure was not in response to it.

But Oliva said she has “no regrets, no complaints” about her time at Chadbourne.

“I had a great time at Chadbourne. This is just an opportunity that I couldn’t let go,” she said. “I only had a good experience.”

When asked if she ever experienced discrimination at Chadbourne, Oliva said, “I don’t know because I don’t know what others make.” She said that’s a common issue for many in law firms and across other industries. “In general, women are paid less than men. It doesn’t come easy, you have to fight for your salary and fight for your bonus,” she said.

Oliva’s exit comes shortly after Chadbourne lost three international commercial arbitration partners to Cooley, including Mark Beckett, Rachel Thorn and Marc Suskin in New York.

In November, however, Chadbourne announced the election of six new partners. Last week Chadbourne unveiled its addition of Howard Beltzer as senior counsel in its bankruptcy and financial restructuring group. Chadbourne said Beltzer, previously a partner at Mayer Brown in New York, represents agent banks in syndicated facilities, out-of-court restructurings and in-court insolvency proceedings.

A Chadbourne spokesman declined to comment on the new filings, while another spokesman said the firm wishes Oliva well.

Originally published by the New York Law Journal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.