Ropes & Gray wrote negative reviews of work done by former associate John Ray III years after the fact to justify forcing him out, a lawyer for Ray argued this week during a hearing in his discrimination case against the firm.
“No other associate considered for partner was subjected to being criticized over and over again for things that happened years ago,” Latif Doman of Washington's Doman Davis argued during a two-hour hearing on Tuesday before U.S. District Judge Richard Stearns in Boston.
Appearing for Ropes was Michael Keating, the litigation department chairman at Boston’s Foley Hoag, who insisted that Ray’s “evaluations were not sufficiently positive to advance or promote him.”
Ray filed suit nearly two years ago, after the firm informed him that he would not be promoted to ninth-year associate, eliminating his chance of making partner. In subsequent court filings, the firm cited “work that was well below our partnership standards, his fractured relationships with colleagues and allegations of inappropriate behavior with subordinates."
Ray filed suit against the firm and 13 partners, alleging breach of contract; discrimination and retaliation in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and unfair competition. He said Ropes treated him as a "token black associate" and a "diversity hire" despite a resume that includes a federal clerkship and a Harvard Law School degree.
During Tuesday’s hearing, Keating read from summaries of Ray’s performance reviews written by Ropes’ nine-member policy committee, which makes promotion decisions. He also read parts of 25 partner evaluations of Ray. “There is no evidence, direct or indirect, of discriminatory intent of the persons submitting those evaluations,” he said.
Doman, however, argued that other Ropes lawyers who, like Ray, drew mixed reviews about their writing skills, collegiality and lack of polish were promoted, or at least not forced out.
“What makes this discriminatory? I don't think there’s anything in Title 7 that says an employer has to be consistent,” Stearns said.
“When an employer is applying a standard that is different, that’s not equal opportunity,” Doman replied.
Stearns declared that several of Ray’s claims were “non-starters” including those for breach of contract, unfair competition and a defamation claim against the head of Ropes’ human resources department.
Ray’s partial summary judgment motion asks the judge to rule that Ropes violated state and federal anti-retaliation laws by interfering with his future job prospects. He also seeks a ruling that the firm violated anti-preservation laws by destroying witness interview notes from a disciplinary investigation of Ray.
Ropes’ brief acknowledged that two partners refused to supply promised recommendation letters to Ray, but insisted that didn’t constitute retaliation. They were reacting, the firm said, to Ray’s discrimination claims and demand for an $8.5 million settlement.
Ray joined Ropes in 2005 after working at Cravath, Swaine & Moore and Jenner & Block. In December 2008, the firm gave him six months to find new employment. After the firm rebuffed his settlement bid, he filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint in May 2009.
The EEOC rejected Ray’s discrimination claims but ruled in February 2011 that Ropes had retaliated against him because of his EEOC filing.
In August 2011, Ray filed the federal racial discrimination and retaliation case against the firm, 13 of its partners and the firm's former “chief people officer.”
He claimed the trouble began in 2008, when he complained to the firm about a "nigger" joke and a partner’s request that he be the "token black associate" in a meeting with a prospective bank client facing racial lending discrimination claims. After that, he said, he stopped getting assignments from partners and his billable hours dropped.
Stearns dismissed Ray’s defamation and invasion of privacy claims in November.
Sheri Qualters can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.