In a gender discrimination suit lodged by a onetime associate in the firm’s Philadelphia office, Gibbons is pushing to have claims moved to arbitration.

Jennifer L. Seme

Jennifer Seme sued Newark-based Gibbons in February, alleging that she was wrongly fired because she is a woman.

“Plaintiff was subjected to a sex-biased pay and promotion system utilized by defendant during her approximately eight years of employment as an associate attorney,” her complaint said. “Despite strong performance throughout her employment, she was paid substantially less than her peers, the majority of whom were male.”

Gibbons has argued that because Seme signed an arbitration agreement, the dispute cannot be litigated in federal court. The firm filed a memo backing up its motion to compel arbitration on May 8 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Gibbons filed the motion in March, and U.S. District Senior Judge John Padova is expected to rule on it soon, according to defense counsel.

“Plaintiff was a sophisticated party with six years of experience as an attorney when she signed the arbitration agreement; surely, if she is as skilled an attorney as she claims to be in her opposition, she clearly understood the terms of the arbitration agreement and the consequences of signing it,” Gibbons’ reply said. “And plaintiff has wholly failed on a substantive unconscionability challenge, because this agreement is imminently fair and balanced.”

Seme, who is represented by Kate Oeltjen of Console Mattiacci Law, alleged in her complaint that she was abruptly fired last year, and that she had been undercompensated compared to her male peers.

In response to the motion to compel arbitration, Seme argued that the arbitration agreement she signed was unconscionable, and therefore invalid. She also argued that moving the case to arbitration would violate her rights to a jury trial under the Seventh Amendment.

“Defendant now seeks to have its unlawful conduct towards plaintiff hidden by forcing plaintiff to litigate her claims in a private, confidential arbitral process,” Seme’s response said.

If the court does not find the agreement unenforceable, Seme argued, it should allow the plaintiff time for discovery regarding the validity of the arbitration agreement before ruling on the motion to compel.

In the reply filed on May 8, Gibbons shot down those arguments, and said discovery on the motion “would serve only to prolong the pendency of this matter in the improper venue.”

“Plaintiff’s opposition consists of a lengthy dissertation on her contention that arbitration is generally an imperfect and improper forum, but that ship has sailed,” Gibbons’ reply said.

According to her complaint, Seme filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in September 2018, and she was issued a notice of right to sue two days later.

She started working at Gibbons in 2010, when she joined as a lateral associate.

Seme’s complaint said she received positive performance appraisals for her work, and was recognized by other organizations as well—the suit noted that she was selected by The Legal Intelligencer, a Law Journal affiliate, as a Lawyer on the Fast Track.

However, Seme alleged that Gibbons awarded male associates origination credit for matters on which they were supervised, while she was not given origination credit for matters on which she had little or no supervision, or when the client specifically referred the matter to her.

“Defendant’s male directors often shared their own origination credit with male associates in an effort to assist male associates with business development and their prospects for promotion, while no such effort was made with plaintiffs or other female associates,” the complaint alleged.

Seme also noted that there were no female directors in the Philadelphia office, and only two of the 12 lawyers there during her employment were women.

She alleged that the firm promoted male associates with lesser professional accomplishments to director. But when she asked about being promoted, the complaint said, she was told she “‘should be happy’ if defendant promoted her to ‘of counsel.’” Semes also complained to the firm multiple times about her pay being unequal to that of her peers, the complaint said.

In July 2018, the complaint said, Semes was fired from the firm, but the firm asked her to stay into September. At the end of that July, the firm hired a male associate in Philadelphia, who she was instructed to train.

“On or about August 9, 2018, when defendant learned that plaintiff would not be signing a release of all legal claims against defendant, defendant terminated her employment, effective that day,” the complaint said.

Sara Begley of Holland & Knight, one of the lawyers representing Gibbons, said in a statement on May 10: “We do not believe it is appropriate to comment on the substance of the matter because it is currently fully briefed and awaiting disposition by the court. Gibbons is simply honoring the agreement struck by two sophisticated parties at the outset of the employment relationship to arbitrate employment disputes that arise between them. Gibbons believes this matter is perfectly suited to arbitration, which will provide a fair and impartial forum for the parties to resolve their differences.”

Oeltjen, Seme’s lawyer, declined to comment on the case.