A federal judge has thrown out the bulk of a former associate’s race-discrimination complaint against Ropes & Gray, but set a November trial date on two retaliation claims.
U.S. District Judge Richard Stearns in Boston on August 16 granted Ropes’ motion for summary judgment regarding John Ray III’s claims of unlawful discrimination; breach of contract and covenant of good faith and fair dealing; and unfair competition by interfering with his opportunity to work at peer firms. He also dismissed Ray’s defamation claim against Joy Curtis, the firm’s former “chief people officer.”
Ray’s August 2011 suit against the firm, 13 of its partners and Curtis accused the defendants of denying him a partnership and firing him for race-related reasons.
The first retaliation claim headed to trial concerns Ropes’ failure to produce two promised letters of recommendation. The other involved the May 2011 release of a January 2011 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determination about Ray to the Above the Law website.
But Stearns’ found that Ropes’ decision to lock Ray out of his office at one point during his severance period did not amount to retaliation because Ray received his full salary and benefits and use of firm email during that time.
The EEOC at first concluded that Ray had no reasonable cause to believe that Ropes had discriminated or retaliated against him. But the following month, in its final determination, the commission found probable cause to believe Ray’s retaliation claim, while reiterating its ruling on the underlying discrimination claim.
Ropes, for its part, claimed that it merely responded to Above the Law’s request for comment. The web site had obtained a copy of Ray’s letter to Harvard Law School dean Martha Minow about the final February finding.
Stearns wrote that while Ropes may have a legitimate argument that it gave the first EEOC determination to Above the Law to ensure an accurate story, the firm also “knowingly released severely damaging information about Ray – including an allegation of criminal misconduct – and arguably violated its own policy against disseminating information contained in employee personnel records. It is open to a jury to find that Ropes would not have responded to Above the Law in the way it did but for Ray’s protest letter to Dean Minow.”
Ropes claimed that two partners rescinded offers to give Ray recommendation letters after he demanded an $8.5 million settlement of his discrimination claims.
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 a new job.
Ray claimed his disputes with the firm began earlier in 2008, when he complained about a "nigger" joke and a partner’s request that he be the "token black associate" during a meeting with a prospective bank client facing claims of racial lending discrimination.
Ray claimed his billable hours dropped after his complaints because he got fewer assignments from partners.
Michael Keating, the litigation department chairman at Boston’s Foley Hoag, who argued for Ropes at a recent hearing, declined to comment.
Ray’s lawyer Latif Doman of Washington's Doman Davis did not respond to requests for comment.
Sheri Qualters can be contacted at email@example.com.