Dechert has filed an answer in a lawsuit against the firm brought by a former Boston associate, and asked the court to dismiss one claim.
Ariel Ayanna’s federal suit alleges that Dechert illegally fired him in retaliation for using Family and Medical Leave Act time to care for his children and mentally ill wife. His complaint in Ayanna v. Dechert claims that “the culture for men at Dechert is a ‘macho’ one which praises and encourages male associates and partners to fulfill the stereotypical male role of ceding family responsibilities to women.”
On April 26, the firm submitted an answer denying that Dechert’s culture is “macho” or that it encourages male associates and partners to cede family responsibilities to women. The answer also denies specific allegations in the complaint. In addition, the firm filed a motion to dismiss a state law claim alleging discrimination based on association with a disabled individual.
Ayanna filed suit against Dechert on Dec. 14, 2010, in the District of Massachusetts, alleging the firm retaliated against him for taking leave time under the FMLA.
Ayanna’s complaint states that he worked in Dechert’s financial services practice group from Sept. 11, 2006, until Dec. 17, 2008. He claims he received a positive review during his first year at Dechert and a $30,000 bonus for 2007.
According to the complaint, Ayanna’s wife became pregnant with their second child during his second year at the firm, and “her condition deteriorated to the point that she attempted suicide.” Ayanna’s lawsuit claims his wife suffers from borderline personality disorder, long-term post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder and general anxiety disorder.
After the child was born, Ayanna used four weeks of paid paternity leave plus time allowed under the FMLA. He claims he was fired four months after returning from FMLA leave.
Ayanna’s amended complaint includes three legal claims. The first is that that Dechert unlawfully retaliated against him for exercising his FMLA rights. The second is that Dechert violated a Massachusetts employment discrimination law because of its disparate treatment of him and unlawful stereotyping. Ayanna’s third claim is that the firm violated a state employment law by discriminating against him based on his association with a disabled individual.
In February, Ayanna voluntarily dismissed two original claims because they were time-barred. One was that Dechert violated the Americans With Disabilities Act”s prohibition on discrimination against someone due to an association with a disabled person. The second was that Dechert violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title I of the Civil Rights Act of 1991 through sex discrimination based on disparate treatment and unlawful stereotyping.
Ayanna’s amended lawsuit asks the court to order Dechert “to institute and carry out policies, practices, and programs that eradicate unlawful stereotyping of male care-givers.” He also seeks back and front pay, lost benefits, damages for emotional distress punitive damages and attorney fees and costs.
In its April 26 answer, Dechert denies Ayanna’s FMLA unlawful retaliation claim and his state law employment discrimination claim based on disparate treatment and stereotyping. The firm filed a separate motion to dismiss the state law employment discrimination claim based on Ayanna’s association with a disabled person.
The firm’s court filing denies that Dechert’s culture is ‘macho” or that it encourages male associates and partners to cede family responsibilities to women. The firm also denies that it simply “tolerates” female attorneys’ care giving responsibilities.
In response to Ayanna’s claim that his 2006-2007 evaluation was positive, Dechert replies that the “evaluation is a document that speaks for itself.” The firm admits that Ayanna received a $30,000 bonus in 2007.
Dechert’s court filing also addresses allegations about its policy of allowing male associates four weeks of paid leave when they have children. The firm denies that it “discourages men from taking on a primary caretaking role in child care” and Ayanna’s claim that no men took their full paternity leave while he worked at the firm.
Dechert further denies that when Ayanna returned from his FMLA leave, the “overwhelming majority” of his work came from one partner and that “he got almost no work from any other partners or senior associates, despite requesting it regularly.”
In response to Ayanna’s claim that Dechert terminated him in December 2008, the firm claims he was told he had until March 31, 2009, to find other employment.
The firm raises numerous affirmative defenses. Dechert claims Ayanna has sustained no damages, but if he has, it is because of his acts or omissions or those of some third party.
The firm also claims that Ayanna’s claim is contrary to public policy and that he “abandoned his position of employment.” Dechert further states that Ayanna cannot establish a prima facie case of employment discrimination, or an FMLA violation, and that he “was not treated differently than similarly situated individuals not in his alleged protected class.”
Dechert’s April 26 motion to dismiss the state law employment discrimination association claim is based on the firm’s argument that a discrimination due to association claim “simply does not exist” under the state’s employment discrimination law. “While plaintiff might have asserted an ‘association’ claim under federal law, he failed to do so in a timely manner and such as claim is now time-barred,” Dechert’s memo states.
The memo cites a 2010 Massachusetts Superior Court case, Brelin-Penny v. Encore Images, which held that the state law doesn’t allow for discrimination claims based solely upon association with qualified individuals.
Dechert’s brief also states that, unlike the broader ADA, Massachusetts law “does not included ‘associated persons’ within the classes of persons protected from employment discrimination under the statue.”
The brief also cites Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court cases that held that only specific categories of protected persons have standing to bring state employment discrimination claims.
Ayanna’s lawyer, Rebecca Pontikes of Boston’s Pontikes & Swartz, said that Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination case law indicates that there is an association claim under the state’s employment discrimination law. “From my research, I do believe that exists and we will be opposing the motion on those grounds,” she said.
Dechert’s lawyers at Boston-based Collora LLP did not return calls for comment.
Dechert has “no comment beyond what the papers say,” said spokesperson Beth Huffman.
Sheri Qualters can be contacted at email@example.com.