Francine Friedman Griesing, the former Greenberg Traurig shareholder suing the firm for gender discrimination in a proposed $200 million class action, has asked a Philadelphia federal judge to dismiss the law firm’s motion to compel arbitration or, at the least, change the venue.
On the same day Griesing filed her proposed class action against Greenberg Traurig in New York federal court, the law firm filed a petition in Philadelphia federal court to compel arbitration, which it said was required under the firm’s partnership agreement.
Griesing said the Pennsylvania court should dismiss the petition or transfer it to the Southern District of New York.
“To do otherwise would deprive Ms. Griesing the right to litigate her civil rights claims in the forum of her choice and would send a message to employers that they can dictate an employee’s choice of forum simply by filing a related case elsewhere,” Griesing said in her motion.
She is represented by David Sanford and a team of attorneys at Sanford Heisler. Sanford signed onto Griesing’s motion in the Pennsylvania case, and Neil J. Hamburg and Jodi S. Wilenzik of Hamburg & Golden also entered their appearance on behalf of Griesing.
She said Title VII cases like the one she filed in New York are governed by specific venue provisions and allow for an action to be brought in any district in which the alleged unlawful employment practices occurred. She said she filed her action in New York because that’s where Greenberg Traurig’s chief executive officer, Richard Rosenbaum, works.
Griesing noted a district court can dismiss any action in favor of a related pending action in another jurisdiction. She said the pre-emptive filing of the Pennsylvania action before Griesing filed her New York action was “blatant forum shopping.”
In its Dec. 3 motion to compel arbitration, Greenberg Traurig said the shareholder agreement Griesing signed included an arbitration clause. That clause said the arbitration would be held either in Miami, where the firm is headquartered, or in the city where the shareholder is employed. Greenberg Traurig also said any shareholders who would potentially be members of the putative class are bound by the arbitration clause.
Greenberg Traurig is represented in the arbitration matter by Baker Botts in Washington and Freemann Law Offices in Philadelphia.
“Francine Griesing refused to submit her claim to arbitration as required by the firm’s shareholder agreement and instead filed in federal court,” Greenberg Traurig said in a statement Wednesday. “Accordingly, the firm filed a petition in federal court in Philadelphia to compel arbitration.”
Griesing sued Greenberg Traurig after the U.S. 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.
Griesing, who worked at the firm from April 2007 to January 2010, alleged she was told to look for other employment after complaining about the firm’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.
Sanford said at the time Griesing filed her complaint that, while she was the only plaintiff at that time, he expects the class to reach nearly 215 members, who worked at the firm dating back to 2007. He said they are seeking $200 million in damages.
Sanford also said in response to Greenberg Traurig’s motion to compel arbitration that he was confident Griesing would get her day in court.
Greenberg Traurig, however, adamantly denied Griesing’s claims.
The lawsuit “is an affront to the accomplished, talented women of Greenberg Traurig, who, like all of our lawyers, are compensated based on merit,” Greenberg Traurig executive committee member Hilarie Bass said in the statement when the suit was filed. “It is nothing more than a financially motivated publicity stunt without merit, backed by neither fact nor law.”
Bass noted the complaint misrepresents the EEOC investigation, which she said included only a small number of women in one office where Griesing was the only complainant.
Attorneys for Griesing and Greenberg Traurig weren’t immediately available Wednesday for comment on the latest filing.
According to Griesing’s complaint, Greenberg Traurig has a closed compensation system in which Rosenbaum is the sole decision-maker on all promotion and compensation matters, with the advice of four other male shareholders who serve as the compensation committee.
Greenberg Traurig has three shareholder levels, 300, 500 and 1,000. The 1,000 level is the most highly compensated, and less than 10 percent at 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 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. She claimed 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.
Greenberg Traurig has 1,750 attorneys including 33 attorneys in its Philadelphia office, according to the firm’s website.