A female junior partner at law firm DLA Piper says she suffered retaliation after reporting she was sexually assaulted by a male partner. The woman claims that after she reported the assaults her work performance was criticized and she lost work opportunities. For purposes of this post, we will refer to the lawyer by her first name.
Vanina says she was hired in September in 2018 as a junior partner at DLA Piper’s Silicon Valley office. She was hired to work in the firm’s US Emerging Growth and Venture Capital. DLA Piper is one of the largest law firms in the world employing approximately 4,200 lawyers.
She says she was recruited to work for a senior partner named Louis Lehot. Within two weeks of starting work, Vanina says she was sexually assaulted in a hotel room in Shanghai while the two were on a business trip. Within a couple months she says she was sexually assaulted two more times, once in Chicago and the other in Palo Alto.
According to an open letter she wrote to the firm’s management,
“Mr. Lehot’s extreme temper and angry tirades that include shouting and clenching his fists are common knowledge at the office. Lawyers, staff and admin assistants do everything possible to avoid his wrath. My many attempts to fend off Mr. Lehot’s sexual advances failed. Mr. Lehot controls my work and my ability to advance. When I dared to tell him to stop, Mr. Lehot would refuse to speak to me for weeks, threaten to take me off of client deals, and accuse me of underperformance. Horrifically, I later learned that he suggested to numerous men at the Firm, and to certain clients, that he and I were involved in a consensual relationship. After months of Mr. Lehot’s relentless campaign and physical advances, I began experiencing panic attacks and stress related medical conditions that landed me in the emergency room several times.
Like many victims, Vavina says she was reluctant to report the attacks. Having moved her entire family from Hong Kong to California, she worried about her family and her own well-being.
According to her letter to management, Vavina says she first complained to the co-managing partner of the Silicon Valley office, Sang Kim.
“After the panic attacks started, I again reached out to Mr. Kim. I believed, naively, that he would do the right thing and help me. In July, I broke down and told Mr. Kim about Mr. Lehot’s specific conduct. Shockingly, he responded by saying that it sounded like a ‘he said, she said’ situation and that the best way to resolve it was for me to “talk it out” with Mr. Lehot and three other senior partners – all men. Just days later, Mr. Kim took me off one of the practice’s largest deals.”
Beware the Fine Print – Arbitration Agreements Prevent Harassment Lawsuits
Vavina has filed a complaint with the EEOC. Her lawyers claim that Lehot is a violent bully that intimidates subordinates to get his way:
“[H]e regularly throws temper-tantrums in and out of the office. Unfortunately for employees and Ms. Guerrero, his physicality and vitriol make him a formidable force when he is yelling, swearing, red in the face ranting and clenching his fists. Such classic bullying tactics are effective when left unchecked, and at all relevant times, no one at the Firm has reined in Mr. Lehot. In fact, his temper is so feared that as intended, employees, including Ms. Guerrero were hyper-vigilant about what they said or did not say, effectively silencing themselves before giving Mr. Lehot an opportunity to do so. Proactively silencing complaints through aggressive rants such as Mr. Lehot’s is textbook harasser behavior.”
Like many employers today, DLA Piper requires new hires to sign an arbitration agreement covering a multitude of disputes including employment and sexual harassment claims. These agreements effectively deny victims their day in court. Unfortunately, courts routinely enforce these agreements.
Unfortunately, most new hires never focus on the fine print of employment agreements. Their focus is on salary, benefits and job duties. Buried in many employment agreements is language in which the employee gives up their right to seek redress in the courts.
Employers love forced arbitration. In our opinion, arbitrators are biased in favor of employers and less likely to award punitive damages. They are also secret thus allowing the employer to face any public scrutiny. The New York Times calls forced arbitration clauses “stacking the deck.”
[Tied to forced arbitration clauses are class action waivers. We faced this battle on behalf of Uber drivers and lost. The court ruled that drivers waived their right to filing lawsuits when they clicked a box on the driver’s app agreeing to drive for Uber. Although drivers could have opted out, we believe that the opt-out language was confusing and buried in the fine print. Class action waivers give companies a “get out of jail free” card because many customers or line workers simply can’t afford legal help to take on a big corporate giant.]
Several legislators have introduced the Restoring Statutory Rights Act that would roll back recent Supreme Court decisions that say the federal Arbitration Act trumps the 7th Amendment. (“In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved…”)
It is doubtful the legislation or similar measures will pass in the current Congress.
Is There Any Hope?
There is hope. Although we don’t think there is enough political will just yet to block forced arbitration clauses in sexual harassment cases, public opinion is starting to force employers to think twice about denying workers access to the courts. Two years into the #MeToo movement, the American populace is more aware of sexual harassment concerns in the workplace. Several law firms have rolled back forced arbitration clauses, at least for sexual harassment cases.
Were You Sexually Harassed at Work?
If you suffered sexual harassment at work, give us a call. Our experienced team and network of sexual harassment and employment lawyers can help you obtain the justice you deserve.
We will thoroughly review your evidence and let you know if you have a case; present your case in court; hire experts and investigators to help prove your case; and take your case all the way to trial if your employer won’t settle.
We generally accept cases where the employee has lost his or her job or suffered serious monetary losses. Cases are accepted on a contingency fee basis meaning you don’t pay unless we win.
There is no reason why any employee should suffer from a hostile workplace. For more information, visit our sexual harassment FAQ page. Working at a law firm? You also may wish to visit our post Lawyers and Hostile Workplaces. Ready to see if you have a case? Contact us online, by email [hidden email] or by phone at 877-858-8018. [All inquiries are protected by the attorney – client privilege and kept strictly confidence.]