Along with summer associate lunches and the occasional country club outing, access to chauffeured Lincolns and Cadillacs is one of the most ubiquitous perks of big law firm life. But the proper use of car service is at the heart of a sex and age discrimination suit currently facing Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.
Rita W. Gordon, a former counsel in the firm's litigation department, was fired in 2005 for allegedly inappropriately charging clients for personal car service use. The firm reported her to the Departmental Disciplinary Committee and reimbursed several clients.
But Gordon claims her car service use was no different from that of other lawyers at the firm and that Skadden's real aim "was to find a non-discriminatory excuse for terminating a 60-year-old woman and replace her with a younger man whose demeanor and conduct was more consistent with the 'macho' image of Skadden's Litigation Department."
Gordon filed suit against the firm and senior litigation partner Samuel Kadet in August 2006. Her lawyer, New York's Susan B. Egan, declined to comment, citing a protective order governing most submissions in the case. Skadden, which is represented by Bettina Plevan of Proskauer Rose, also declined to comment.
Gordon's suit asks for $8 million in damages.
Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Milton A. Tingling ordered a discovery conference in Gordon v. Kadet, 106645/06, to be held July 28.
A latecomer to the law, Gordon joined Skadden in 1991 following her 1988 graduation from University of Connecticut School of Law and a two-year clerkship with a federal judge in Hartford. Passed over for partnership, she became a counsel at the firm in 1999.
She claims she received stellar reviews for her work as an associate and early on as a counsel. But in 2002, she stopped receiving reviews as well as salary increases. In March 2005, she was allegedly told she would have to leave the firm by the end of the year.
According to her suit, Gordon was summoned to Kadet's office in May 2005 and summarily fired for unauthorized car service charges totalling $50,000. Gordon claims the figure was reduced to $23,000 over a five-year period when the firm reported her to disciplinary authorities two weeks later.
Skadden lawyers are permitted to take cars home when they work past a certain hour at night, as well as at other times when client service demands.
But Gordon is arguing she was justified in taking cars to and from her apartment at times other than late at night because she worked on client matters at home. She claims a 1994 back injury made it painful for her to sit at her desk for long hours or to work on papers back and forth on the subway.
She said a review of Skadden's billing records would show she did not charge car services to clients unless she was working on their matters from home. On those occasions when she took cars for personal use, she claims she charged them to her personal account.
"If plaintiff had not been able to work from home, she would not have been able to work the hours expected of Skadden's lawyers," Gordon alleges.
She claims her practice of working at home did set her apart from other litigators at the firm.
"Skadden's Litigation Department is well known as a haven of 'machismo' where one's worth is measured by how many nights one can go without sleep," she said in her complaint. "The head of the Litigation Department was heard to block a female lawyer's chances for partnership by saying that she 'would not get down in the trenches,' meaning that she was unwilling to camp out at the firm for days and night."
She also had brought a defamation claim against the firm based on Skadden's dissemination of information about her firing and her disciplinary referral to other lawyers and clients, but that claim was dismissed. There is no record of any disciplinary action having been taken against Gordon.