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BigLaw DEI leader encountered bias after standing up to 'nearly all-white firm,' bias suit alleges

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The former vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion at Armstrong Teasdale alleges in a bias lawsuit that the law firm fired her after rebuffing her requests for additional staff and preventing her from doing her job. (Image from Shutterstock)

The former vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion at Armstrong Teasdale alleges in a bias lawsuit that the law firm fired her after rebuffing her requests for additional staff and preventing her from doing her job.

Sonji Young, a 44-year-old Black woman, sued for alleged violations of Missouri’s Human Rights Act.

Young alleges discrimination for exercising her workers’ compensation rights when she suffered anxiety and panic attacks; retaliation for supporting bias victims; defamation for false statements that she had resigned; discrimination for association with protected people; and discrimination based on sex, race, age and disability.

Young “stood up against Armstrong Teasdale’s nearly all-white firm,” according to the suit filed June 30 on Young’s behalf by Keenan & Bhatia in Missouri circuit court.

Young began working at Armstrong Teasdale in March 2021, but she didn’t receive her new employee badge to access the parking garage and elevators until eight months later, the suit says. Nor did she receive training on systems critical to success in her new role, she alleges.

Young had heard from attorneys of color that they had trouble fitting in, that they did not get quality work assignments, and that they were expected to “sink or swim.” A Black partner allegedly told Young that the firm had forced him to give up client relationships that he had built and relied on., Bloomberg Law and Law360 have coverage.

The suit describes these alleged incidents:

  • When Young sought staff members, such as a communications manager, a data analyst, a program manager and an executive assistant, she was told by Patrick Rasche, then the firm’s managing partner, that: “Your team is one person.”

  • After Armstrong Teasdale filled the position of chief diversity officer, the white man in the position, Richard Scheff, contacted Young in November 2021. “His voice became louder and louder, and he started yelling at Ms. Young,” the suit says. “He screamed, ‘I never had a say in your hiring!’” Young was forced to reinterview for her role with Scheff during a meeting in which he allegedly “harassed and belittled” Young. Scheff moved to Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath in August 2023, according to a prior story by

  • When Young complained to Rasche about her treatment by Scheff, Rasche allegedly said, “That’s just his personality. He’s from the East Coast.”

  • When participating in a discussion, Young was told that the lowest-performing attorneys were all attorneys of color. Young replied that those lawyers were reporting challenges in getting work assignments. One practice group leader said there is no training, and the expectation is that they know how to be attorneys when they graduate. Young replied that first-generation minority attorneys are often not as well equipped to excel without proper training and support that might otherwise be available to their white counterparts. Young was then told that the firm was working on the issue, but she never received an answer when she asked to be included in planning.

  • Young took time off work because of “an extreme amount of stress and anxiety” stemming from overwork and the discriminatory environment. She was never able to “fully unplug,” however, because she was the only member of her team, and there was no one to cover for her. “Young was still forced to work because the work was never-ending,” the suit says.

  • After Young developed a survey to gather experiences of lawyers who recently took parental leave, the firm stopped her from disseminating it because it “exposes the firm to risk,” the suit says.

  • During a leadership summit in October 2022, several lawyers talked about imbalanced workloads. Scheff and another lawyer “expressed disdain for Armstrong Teasdale’s ‘incompetent staff,’” the suit says. The comment alarmed Young because many staff members were people of color. When she expressed disapproval, Scheff allegedly screamed, “Due to your incompetence and inability, you will never understand this point!” A white partner then said he preferred working with the human resources chief, who is white, because “she’s one of us,” the suit alleges. Young went to the restroom and cried.

  • When Young returned to the leadership meeting after crying in the restroom, Rasche laughed and “smirked,” the suit says. He allegedly said, “Do you usually have to dart off like that?” and, “It seems like your job is just a lot of putting out fires.”

  • Young took bereavement leave after the January 2023 death of her grandmother, who had helped raise her. She straightened her desk before the leave. While on bereavement leave, she was asked to meet with the human resources chief and Rasche. The human resources leader told Young that she had “signaled” her resignation “when she had tidied up her desk.” She was fired immediately.

Young was told that she was being fired for scheduling meetings with office managing partners without Rasche’s approval, failing to share her DEI agenda with Rasche, showing a lack of ability to lead DEI, siloing herself from other leaders, violating the paid-time-off policy and vacating her role.

“Each of Mr. Rasche’s reasons were false, and he had never raised any of them to Ms. Young prior to her approved leave,” the suit alleges.

The suit alleges that the firm discriminated against Young by “subjecting her to differential and worse treatment, harassing her, subjecting her to a hostile work environment, refusing to communicate with her, refusing to grant her access to firm resources, refusing to allow her to participate meaningfully in decision-making, preventing her from performing her job, mocking and/or ridiculing her, discharging her from employment, spreading false information that she had resigned, delaying her unemployment benefits, failing to pay Ms. Young her accrued paid time off, and making a FOIA request to her subsequent employer.”

The suit does not explain why Armstrong Teasdale made the Freedom of Information Act request.

Armstrong Teasdale gave this statement to publications covering the suit: “We have investigated the allegations and will defend vigorously against them. We believe the claims to be frivolous and salacious and trust the court will find the same.”

Scheff and Rasche did not immediately respond to the ABA Journal’s email requests for comment.

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