Attorneys representing three ex-partners of Chadbourne & Parke in a sex discrimination lawsuit against the now-defunct law firm are seeking to dig into the personal email accounts of the Chadbourne leaders named in the suit, as well as emails of certain former partners who allegedly had disagreements with Chadbourne’s management committee.
The dispute is the latest battle in a $100 million discrimination case brought by three former Chadbourne partners, Kerrie Campbell, Mary Yelenick and Jaroslawa Zelinsky Johnson. The ex-partners and Chadbourne, now part of Norton Rose Fulbright, have been ordered to conduct limited discovery to determine if the three deserve protection under employment laws, or if their former status as partners of the firm disqualifies them from bringing the suit.
In asking for information beyond office documents, plaintiffs attorney David Sanford of Sanford Heisler Sharp said in a letter filed in court Tuesday that the defense has taken the position that plaintiffs’ personal email should be searched, and the court should require the same of the individual defendants.
Besides Chadbourne and its merger partner Norton Rose, the suit names as defendants firm leaders and management committee members Abbe Lowell, Marc Alpert, Andrew Giaccia, Howard Seife, Lawrence Rosenberg and Paul Weber.
Sanford said personal emails discussing matters such as the firing or disciplining of partners and their decisions to withhold information from partners “are squarely discoverable.”
And in a discovery request suggesting discord in the partnership ranks, Sanford wants emails of three former partners who he says have information about “the management committee’s overarching control over Chadbourne and its partners.” Sanford said this includes the former head of Chadbourne’s Washington, D.C., office, who he said “had numerous disagreements” with the management committee about the amount of control it exercised in staffing Washington partners’ cases.
While Sanford didn’t name the lawyer, Dana Frix was named Washington office managing partner in 2012 and is described in Campbell’s suit as having listened to Campbell’s initial compensation complaints. He left Chadbourne last year, before the Norton Rose merger, and formed his own consulting shop.
The two other former partners with relevant emails, Sanford said, include one who objected to the management committee’s “secrecy” and advocated transferring compensation power to a separate committee, as well as a former partner who repeatedly questioned the committee on its finances and operations. Sanford said the management committee apparently directed two of the three partners to leave.
“The emails will show in practice how little power ordinary partners had over the affairs of Chadbourne and even over their own status at the firm,” Sanford said.
But Chadbourne’s defense lawyer, Kathleen McKenna, a partner at Proskauer Rose, said Chadbourne has already agreed to search the emails of 25 people, a “time-consuming and costly” process, and to date, Chadbourne has processed 2.5 terabytes, or 2,500 gigabytes, of data.
Even if it were true that people other than plaintiffs disagreed with the management committee or viewed it as “secretive,” the personal views don’t impact the firm’s ability to “‘hire’ or ‘fire’” partners, McKenna said.
Addressing Sanford’s request to search personal email boxes, McKenna called it a “fishing expedition” and argued that none of the individual defendants used their personal email accounts for Chadbourne’s business.
Attorneys for Chadbourne and the ex-partners are scheduled to meet Thursday over discovery and possibly other issues. The plaintiffs have raised the possibility of adding a fourth named plaintiff to the suit, but have not named the lawyer.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Barbara Moses of the Southern District of New York has already resolved other thorny discovery disputes.
For instance, last month, the parties disagreed over whether documents Chadbourne had already produced disclosed which partners were compensated under individual guarantee or other individual arrangements and the total dollar amount of the profits actually distributed to each partner.
In an Oct. 25 order, Moses, after reviewing sealed discovery information about Chadbourne’s partner points and distribution of profits, appeared to be satisfied so far with Chadbourne’s production on the issue,
“The points list, as I read it, adequately reveals ‘the fact of’ individual arrangements across the partnership,” Moses said, adding at this stage of the case, “there is no need or warrant for discovery into the individual compensation packages of each of Chadbourne’s partners.”