An attorney has sued the Dallas firm where she works, alleging that the firm’s former "closed door" policy which prohibited males and females from being alone together, created a segregated workplace that materially harmed women attorneys.
The background to Kimberly A. Elkjer v. Scheef & Stone, which was filed on April 4 in Dallas County’s 192nd District Court, is as follows, according to the original petition.
Scheef & Stone, for a period of time during Kimberly Elkjer’s employment, maintained a "closed door" policy that prohibited male and female attorneys from being alone together in the workplace. Also, during her employment, the firm maintained a "fraternization" policy that prohibited male and female attorneys from being alone together outside of the workplace, according to the petition filed by Elkjer, who is a non-equity partner in the firm.
"Although the firm formally revoked and/or amended the policies a few years ago, these policies have expanded in practice to create a largely segregated workplace in which most male attorneys at the firm primarily work and socialize with other male attorneys at the firm, at least in the Dallas location where Ms. Elkjer worked," the petition alleges.
Scheef & Stone denies the allegations in the suit in a statement, which alleges there is "no evidence to support Ms. Elkjer’s false claims."
The petition also alleges that the firm has fostered a culture that "encourages sex-based stereotypes, impedes female attorneys’ ability to develop professional relationships with male attorneys at the firm," as well as promoting greater business and income opportunities for males.
"The firm’s conduct has materially harmed female attorneys with respect to compensation," the petition states. "A good portion of this culture appears to emanate from the example set by one or more of the firm’s managing equity partners. Any exception appears to involve female attorneys who conform to the firm’s preferred stereotypes and/or accept the firm’s marginalization of female attorneys."
Elkjer is requesting relief under the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act, including an injunction prohibiting unlawful employment practices, compensation for past and future lost compensation, and monetary relief that is expected to exceed $200,000 but not exceed $1 million.
In its statement, the firm refutes Elkjer’s allegations by stating: "In fact, objective evidence and our business records will clearly show that Ms. Elkjer disagrees with legitimate business decisions based on objective non-discriminatory criteria by the firm’s management that have nothing to do with gender and apply to all attorneys in the firm. No other female attorneys at the firm supports Ms. Elkjer’s false claims. We are fully prepared to defend this case."
The petition also states that Scheef & Stone’s legal counsel "has pointed to a confidentiality agreement" without specifying what factual matters at issue in the case may be confidential. The firm’s counsel also claims that an arbitration agreement governs the claims in her suit, while Elkjer asserts that the agreement does not apply to the claims, according to her petition.
Amy Gibson, a partner in Dallas’ Gibson Wiley who represents Elkjer, says her client is not just suing the firm for how the firm’s alleged segregation affected her, but how it affects other women in the firm.
"It’s not just that situation but that it permeated into decisions that directly affected female attorneys’ compensation," Gibson says. "And I can’t give details right now, because we don’t know yet what aspects of the firm’s conduct it may claim is confidential. And so we’ll need to address that in the normal course of the litigation."
In an updated statement from Scheef & Stone, the firm addressed the issue of the confidentiality provisions of Elkjer’s partnership agreement.
"Ms. Elkjer remains a partner in the firm and has the obligation to abide by the confidentiality provisions of our partnership agreement. The firm submits that Ms. Elkjer’s actions through the filing of her suit and communications with the press have violated the terms of that agreement," according to the firm’s statement.
"While we understand that we are at a severe disadvantage by not being able to respond in detail to her unfounded false allegations, the firm will abide by its requirements under the agreement. Due to its confidentiality obligations, Scheef & Stone is unable to further comment about any actions or policies, except to state that it has not and does not discriminate against any individuals due to their sex or any other protected characteristics."
Gibson denies that her client breached the partnership agreement.
"Although they have made threats concerning contractual confidentiality, nothing in the petition or any statements her attorneys made to the press have revealed anything confidential of the firm,” Gibson says.
"Obviously, Ms. Elkjer feels strongly about this, or she wouldn’t have gone through this step. And her underlying complaint was not about just her own treatment, but that of other female attorneys," Gibson says.
Elkjer did not respond to an emailed request for comment. Jennifer Youpa, a shareholder in the Dallas office of Littler Mendelson who represents Scheef & Stone, did not return a call for comment.