A former Steptoe & Johnson associate urged a Los Angeles federal court not to send a proposed class action into private arbitration, arguing that case law should prevent the firm from burying her gender bias allegations in a secret proceeding.
Lawyers for former Steptoe associate Ji-In Houck—a 2011 Georgetown University Law Center graduate now working as a litigator at the Stalwart Law Group in Los Angeles—filed a brief on Monday opposing Steptoe’s motion to compel arbitration of Houck’s gender bias allegations.
The filing marks the latest in the case since Steptoe, on Aug. 10, forcefully denied Houck’s allegations that the firm has a pay gap between men and women lawyers. Houck, who initially joined Steptoe as a contract lawyer and later became an associate, alleges that she was paid less than her male and other peers at the firm, despite taking on similar work.
“If Steptoe is so certain that Ms. Houck’s claims that a gender pay gap exists are baseless, then why is it afraid to litigate those claims in a public forum?” Houck’s lawyers, led by Lori Andrus of Andrus Anderson, wrote in the opposition brief.
Andrus was not immediately available for additional comment on Wednesday. David Reis, head of Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer’s labor and employment practice and one of Steptoe’s lead defense lawyers, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The defense team also includes Arnold & Porter partner Dipanwita Deb Amar.
Houck’s opposition brief focuses much of its discussion on legal precedent set by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in 2016′s Morris v. Ernst & Young, which considered whether businesses can force employees to sign arbitration agreements that prevent them from bringing a class or collective action.
The Ninth Circuit held that those class action waivers violate the National Labor Relations Act’s (NLRA) collective bargaining provisions. But various federal appeals courts are split on the issue, and the U.S. Supreme Court has since agreed to look at the issue of employee arbitration agreements and class action waivers. Morris is among a trio of disputes in which the high court is scheduled to hear arguments on Oct. 2.
In Houck’s case, the former Steptoe associate signed employment agreements that called for her to arbitrate disputes with the firm on an individual, as opposed to a collective, basis. But while both sides recognize the existence of the employment pacts, they disagree on whether the arbitration provision can be enforced.
Steptoe maintained in its Aug. 10 filing that even though Houck’s case is in California federal court—part of the Ninth Circuit’s jurisdiction—the ruling in Morris shouldn’t apply because the former associate would qualify as a “supervisor” and not an “employee” under the NLRA. To back that argument, Steptoe wrote that Houck had the authority to delegate tasks to other staff members at the team, including secretaries, and that she was even evaluated on “supervision and management” as part of her annual employment review.
As an alternative argument, the firm also urged the court to at least put Houck’s case on hold until the Supreme Court has a chance to weigh in.
“Steptoe will suffer substantial hardship if it is required to litigate while Morris is pending before the Supreme Court,” the firm’s defense team at Arnold & Porter wrote on Aug. 10. “Absent a stay, Steptoe will be forced to litigate and defend a putative class and collective action that may be mooted.”
Houck’s lawyers countered in Monday’s filing. They disputed that she was a “supervisor” under the NLRA, and wrote that there’s no need to wait for Supreme Court guidance.
“Unfortunately for Steptoe, Morris is the law, and this court has no authority to disregard it,” Houck’s lawyers wrote. “The protections offered by the NLRA cover young lawyers, and this matter should not be relegated to a secret proceeding, or shelved for any period.”