PHILADELPHIA - A former female shareholder in Greenberg Traurig’s Philadelphia office has sued the firm in a putative gender-discrimination class action after the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found “reasonable cause to believe” the firm discriminated against women attorneys by compensating them less than their male counterparts, according to the complaint.

Francine Friedman Griesing, who worked at the firm from April 2007 through January 2010, alleged she was told to look for other employment after complaining about Greenberg Traurig’s compensation policies, which she said created a “boys club of origination” that stifled women’s ability to generate business and bill as many hours as men.

Griesing now has her own firm, Griesing Law, with eight attorneys in Philadelphia. David Sanford of Sanford Heisler is representing her in this suit, Griesing v. Greenberg Traurig, filed Monday in the Southern District of New York.

Sanford said that while Griesing is the only member of the suit currently, the class is expected to be near 215 members dating back to 2007. He said they are seeking $200 million in damages, one-quarter of which is for back and front pay, one-quarter toward compensatory damages and half of which is for punitive damages.

Sanford said it is very rare for the EEOC to find reasonable cause, with only 3.8 percent of single-plaintiff and class cases combined receiving that determination, according to EEOC statistics.

Greenberg Traurig executive committee member Hilarie Bass said in a statement that Griesing’s lawsuit paints a false picture of the work environment at the firm.

“The lawsuit filed today by Francine Griesing and her attorneys is an affront to the accomplished, talented women of Greenberg Traurig, who, like all of our lawyers, are compensated based on merit,” Bass said in the statement Monday. “It is nothing more than a financially motivated publicity stunt without merit, backed by neither fact nor law.”

Bass continued that the complaint misrepresents the EEOC investigation, which she said included only a small number of women in one office of the firm and in which Griesing was the only complainant.

“The firm intends to vigorously defend our practices against her lawsuit and we fully expect to prevail,” Bass said.

Bass said Griesing “refused” to submit this matter to arbitration as required by the firm’s shareholder agreement. Greenberg Traurig filed a petition in federal court in Philadelphia on Monday to compel arbitration, Bass said. Greenberg Traurig is represented in that matter by Baker Botts in Washington and Freemann Law Offices in Philadelphia.

Sanford said he will oppose any motion to remove the case to arbitration. He said he’s confident Griesing will soon get her day in court before a jury.

According to Griesing’s complaint, Greenberg Traurig has a closed compensation system in which only CEO Richard Rosenbaum makes all promotion and compensation decisions with advisement from four other male shareholders who serve as the compensation committee.

Greenberg Traurig has three shareholder levels, consisting of the 300 level, 500 level and 1,000 level. The 1,000 level is the most highly compensated, and less than 10 percent of that level are female attorneys, according to the complaint. The 1,000-level shareholders get nearly exclusive access to the firm’s retreats where they can network and refer business, Griesing alleged in the complaint. According to the complaint, the 1,000-level shareholders are estimated to earn $1 million more per year than other shareholders.

Most new shareholders are placed in the 300 or 500 levels and are required to remain in the 500 level for a certain period of time before becoming eligible for the 1,000 level, according to the complaint. Griesing was hired at the 300 level, where all but one of the female Philadelphia shareholders were placed. According to the complaint, men with similar or less qualifications were placed in the 500 level. The 300 level is equivalent to a nonequity partner, Sanford said.

“By assigning women to lower levels and delaying their promotion, the firm denies its female shareholders compensation and opportunities to which they are otherwise entitled,” Griesing alleged in the complaint.

She alleged the compensation system lacks sufficient standards, quality controls, implementation metrics, transparency and oversight.

Griesing said she brought in more than $4 million in timekeeper revenues and origination during her time at the firm. She was told that if she generated $600,000 in originations a year, she would receive a $108,000 bonus and that the bonus would increase as the origination increased, according to the complaint. Despite bringing in double the origination, her bonus was only $115,000 in 2008, Griesing alleged in the complaint.

“GT has one exception to its general practice of denying women professional development opportunities and compensating women less than men,” Griesing alleged in the complaint. “GT prioritizes, pays and promotes women who have intimate relationships with firm leaders or who acquiesce to sexualized stereotypes.”

Griesing alleged in the complaint that many of the few women in management and in high-level shareholder positions had “intimate relationships with firm leaders.” Griesing further alleged male shareholders freely commented on the physical appearance of female shareholders. Griesing said one male shareholder asked her at a firm social event if she was the “‘fifty-year-old Philadelphia shareholder who looked like she was thirty.’” Griesing said in the complaint the male shareholder said he would “‘take better care of her’” if she moved to California where he had management responsibility.

When Griesing raised concerns about her pay to Philadelphia regional operating shareholder Michael Lehr, he allegedly agreed she was owed more in compensation but allegedly said the firm decreased her bonus to be able to offer higher bonuses to male shareholders who had “‘families to support,’” according to the complaint.

Lehr allegedly said Griesing was “‘lucky to have a job,’” according to the complaint. Griesing alleged in her complaint that Lehr, who served on the compensation committee, had told female attorneys that only “‘tall, male and Jewish’” Greenberg Traurig lawyers generate business.

After exhausting other avenues up the food chain in the firm, Griesing said in the complaint that she was left with no other option but to go to Rosenbaum. According to the complaint, Rosenbaum allegedly told Griesing he would not investigate her claims unless she agreed to be “‘happy’” at the firm. Griesing then filed a complaint with the EEOC.

At a subsequent meeting in June 2009, Rosenbaum allegedly told Griesing she needed to leave the firm if she was going to persist in questioning her compensation, according to the complaint.

Griesing said in the complaint that Rosenbaum “took a break from berating her” during the meeting to allegedly order Griesing’s meal for her based on what his wife’s favorite dish was, according to the complaint.

After the meeting, the firm stopped assigning Griesing work and urged her principal associate to work for another shareholder, according to the complaint. In her December 2009 annual review with Rosenbaum, Griesing said Rosenbaum “chastised” her for filing an EEOC complaint. Rosenbaum allegedly said he was finding it “‘difficult to treat [Griesing] fairly,’” in light of those claims, according to the complaint.

On July 28, the EEOC’s Philadelphia District Office determined Griesing had been paid $50,000 less than her nearest male counterpart; that women shareholders were on average compensated less than men at the firm; and men were more likely than women to be hired above level 300. In a subsequent portion of the EEOC finding, District Director Spencer H. Lewis Jr. said he determined there was reasonable cause to believe Greenberg Traurig violated Title VII and the Equal Pay Act by compensating Griesing and other Philadelphia-based female shareholders less favorably because of their sex.

A conciliation process with the EEOC, Griesing and Greenberg Traurig ensued over the past few months, but Sanford said Monday’s complaint is evidence that those talks did not result in a settlement. He said Greenberg Traurig has “ample” reason to settle this nationwide class action.

The proposed class would consist of any female shareholders who worked or are currently working at Greenberg Traurig from April 2007 through the time of judgment in the case, according to the complaint. Under the Title VII claims, Griesing raised claims of assignment and pay discrimination. Griesing also sued on behalf of a proposed collective class under the Equal Pay Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act. Griesing filed individual counts against Greenberg Traurig for retaliation, wrongful termination and constructive discharge.

Greenberg Traurig has 1,750 attorneys firmwide. The firm currently has 33 attorneys in its Philadelphia office, according to the firm’s website. There are 15 male shareholders and six female shareholders in the office. There is one male and one female of counsel and there are six male associates and four female associates, according to the website.

In a July 2012 report on female equity partners done by affiliate The National Law Journal, Greenberg Traurig ranked 193rd out of 221 firms when it came to the percentage of the firm’s equity partnership that was female. According to the report, women accounted for 9.62 percent of the firm’s equity partnership. There were a total of 312 equity partners at the firm.

Griesing’s lawsuit is the latest in a number of instances that have landed Greenberg Traurig in the press in recent months. The firm underwent a $24 million mid-year capital call in August that had some analysts wondering whether that was a sign of struggling finances at the firm. Greenberg Traurig adamantly denied such questions, citing strong financial numbers for 2012. Legal affiliate Daily Business Review in Florida reported in September that Greenberg Traurig was attempting to settle lawsuits brought against the firm by a number of NFL players who claimed the firm failed to warn them about investing in what turned out to be an unlicensed Alabama casino project. In August, a federal judge sanctioned Greenberg Traurig and client TD Bank for blatant discovery errors in a fraud suit won by investors who were cheated by ex-lawyer Scott Rothstein’s $1.2 billion Ponzi scheme.

@|Gina Passarella, a reporter at The Legal Intelligencer, an affiliate, can be contacted at gpassarella@alm.com.