Law Firms

BigLaw firm must face suit alleging it broke promise to retain lawyer as long as she 'performed as an average associate'

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A California appeals court has revived a lawsuit alleging that Drinker Biddle & Reath broke its promise to retain a lawyer as long as she "performed as an average associate."

In an unpublished April 2 decision, the California Court of Appeal’s Second Appellate District ruled that former associate Ani Avetisyan could sue for breach of oral contract, promissory estoppel and fraud. The appeals court agreed with the trial court that other causes of action should be dismissed.

Law360 has coverage. Drinker Biddle & Reath is now known as Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath.

Avetisyan claimed that a partner had told her in March 2013 that things weren’t working out for her in the litigation group, and she should begin looking for new jobs if she wanted to remain in the group. He suggested that she should instead look for work in the firm’s data privacy group.

But the message was less bleak that same month when Avetisyan met with Wilson Brown, who at the time was the chair of Drinker Biddle’s litigation department, the suit says. Brown allegedly told Avetisyan that the firm wanted her to succeed, and the firm would continue to employ her as long as she “performed as an average associate.”

Avetisyan began applying at other law firms in July 2013. She was informed about a month later that she had to find a new job by the end of the year. She was fired Dec. 31, 2013.

Drinker Biddle had argued that the alleged oral promise to retain Avetisyan as long as her performance was average was too vague and indefinite to enforce. The law firm also asserted that the promise was too vague to support Avetisyan’s promissory estoppel claim.

The appeals court acknowledged that the alleged promise was “a little vague” but said the potential uncertainty was not fatal to Avetisyan’s claim. The court noted that Avetisyan had alleged that Drinker Biddle used specific indicators to measure the performance of its associates.

The appeals court said Avetisyan could also sue for fraud based on allegations that the firm made the promise knowing that it intended to lay off associates, but it had to keep Avetisyan on a little longer to work on a big case before firing her. Avetisyan had worked on the case before, and the firm preferred that she work on it instead of bringing on a new associate, Avetisyan alleged.

Faegre Drinker declined to comment. Avetisyan said she did not plan to appeal adverse parts of the decision.

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