COUPLE’S SUIT OVER PARENTAL LEAVE IS NEW CHALLENGE TO BIG LAW FIRM
Jones Day, one of the nation’s largest law firms, faced a harsh spotlight this year when six female lawyers filed a class-action complaint saying they had faced gender and pregnancy discrimination while working there and had been subjected to a “fraternity culture.”
Now the glare has intensified, with a couple formerly employed at Jones Day charging in a federal lawsuit that the firm discriminated in its parental-leave policies and that the husband was fired after he questioned the practice.
The complaint, filed Tuesday, maintains that the firm and some of its partners promoted crude stereotypes about gender roles, with a prominent male partner asking rhetorically, “What would a man do on parental leave — watch his wife unload the dishwasher?” The same partner, the suit claims, teased a male associate for taking parental leave to care for a child.
The plaintiffs are Mark C. Savignac and Julia Sheketoff, who worked in the firm’s elite appellate practice in Washington. Their lawsuit asserts that Jones Day’s policy unlawfully denied Mr. Savignac the full leave he was entitled to after their son was born in January and that it unlawfully fired him when he complained about the policy.
“I was shocked; we truly never considered that they would fire me,” Mr. Savignac said. “We thought the law was so obvious.”
Under the firm’s policy, biological mothers who seek to be a primary caregiver receive 10 weeks of paid family leave plus eight weeks of disability leave, while biological fathers who seek to be a primary caregiver receive 10 weeks of family leave. The firm also awards new adoptive parents of either gender 18 weeks of paid leave if they seek to be a primary caregiver.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has held that employers can award biological mothers eight weeks more paid leave than biological fathers if the additional time is tied to their recovery from the physical toll of childbirth.
But in their legal complaint, Mr. Savignac and Ms. Sheketoff argue that Jones Day awards mothers eight additional weeks of paid leave without regard to whether their physical condition warrants it. The plaintiffs write that the policy gives “female associates more time to enable their husbands to prioritize their careers over child care” and “reflects and reinforces archaic gender roles and sex-based stereotypes.”
Cynthia Thomas Calvert, who advises employers about family-leave policies, said the claim’s fate would hinge on determining whether the policy was intended to provide greater accommodation to recovering mothers or more time for bonding with a child. If meant to foster bonding, the time is supposed to be equal for fathers and mothers. Advocates argue that policies making it easier for fathers to assume domestic responsibilities help overcome an assumption that mothers are less devoted to their careers.
Ms. Calvert said that the fact that adoptive parents receive the same amount of paid leave as biological mothers supported the plaintiffs’ argument that the leave was for bonding, but that this fact was not decisive.
A policy like Jones Day’s does not appear to have been tested in court, but in 2015 CNN settled an analogous case with a biological father.
David Lopez, a former general counsel of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said Mr. Savignac appeared to have a strong claim that his firing was unlawful. Mr. Savignac was fired three business days after he and Ms. Sheketoff said in an email to the firm that the leave policy was discriminatory, and he had previously earned strong performance reviews, according to the complaint.
Jones Day defended its policy, saying it grants birth mothers eight weeks of paid disability leave to avoid having to ask for medical evidence that they are still recovering from childbirth. The firm said the firing of Mr. Savignac had not been in retaliation for criticizing the leave policy, which it said he and Ms. Sheketoff had done in 2018 without repercussions. Rather, it said, it fired him because he had shown a “lack of courtesy” to colleagues and an “open hostility to the firm,” citing his email.
The firm also said its adoption-leave policy reflected the unique demands that adoptive parents can face, like foreign travel and legal proceedings.
Jones Day’s policy is at odds with a trend in which companies are increasingly eliminating the distinction between fathers and mothers or primary and secondary caregivers. They award all employees the same amount of family leave for a new child, though women who give birth can sometimes receive additional time to recover through disability leave.
Jones Day has risen to prominence in recent years thanks partly to its ties to President Trump, whose campaigns it has represented. Several lawyers joined the administration from the firm, including Donald F. McGahn II, Mr. Trump’s first White House counsel.
Mr. Savignac said he had been on parental leave for a few weeks when the firm emailed to say that he was fired, effective that day. He said that he asked Ms. Sheketoff to sit down and hand him their infant, for fear she might drop the baby upon hearing the news.
According to the lawsuit, after Jones Day fired Mr. Savignac, it refused to allow two partners who had worked closely with him and previously praised his work to recommend him to prospective employers. Mr. Savignac said he had applied to dozens of firms without receiving an offer before accepting an offer in June. Ms. Sheketoff left the firm while pregnant last year to work for a public defender’s office, where she took a substantial pay cut.
Separately, the couple contends that the firm paid Ms. Sheketoff less than it would have paid a man because of her gender. The complaint says that Ms. Sheketoff received a smaller raise than she otherwise would have in 2017 after a negative evaluation from a male partner who scolded her for being insufficiently deferential. The partner did not scold male associates who failed to defer to him, according to the complaint.
Jones Day denied that it had discriminated against Ms. Sheketoff and said that “her reviews from multiple partners were mixed.”
Ms. Sheketoff was at Jones Day for almost four years, and Mr. Savignac was there about 20 months.
Their allegations echo those in the class-action complaint against Jones Day, filed in April, that spoke of a “fraternity culture.” That lawsuit, pending in federal court, contends that women who give birth face obstacles to advancement at the firm and that women who have a second child are often asked to leave within a few months of returning to work.
Both lawsuits describe a “black box” compensation system in which the firm’s managing partner, Stephen J. Brogan, sets pay for associates. The complaints argue that this system enables pay discrimination against women.
Most large firms pay associates according to a so-called lock step system, said David Lat, a managing director at the legal recruiting firm Lateral Link. Under that approach, salaries are based on seniority, although bonuses can vary.
In a legal filing responding to the class-action complaint, Jones Day said that Mr. Brogan performs “a high-level review of proposed associate compensation adjustments” and denied that the system results in lower pay for women.
The firm said two plaintiffs in the earlier lawsuit had been asked to leave the firm after the birth of a second child because of “performance issues.”
Both Ms. Sheketoff and Mr. Savignac were clerks at the United States Supreme Court before joining Jones Day, which typically hires more former Supreme Court clerks than any other firm.
Ms. Sheketoff and Mr. Savignac said Jones Day had enlisted them to recruit other former clerks and extol the virtues of working in the firm’s appellate practice. “I feel bad about having worked to persuade other people who may have been misled,” Mr. Savignac said.