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Ex-Associate in Howrey’s Brussels Office Files $30M Bias Suit in D.C.

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A former associate in Howrey’s office in Brussels has filed a $30 million lawsuit that contends she was fired a day after she complained to key principals about discriminatory treatment.

Kamisha Menns, a black woman from Jamaica, says she was excluded from meetings, segregated from other lawyers and subjected to heightened scrutiny because of discrimination based on race and national origin. The suit (PDF) filed today in Washington, D.C., superior court says the stress caused her to cry frequently and scream in her sleep at night.

Menns says she was apparently the first and only black associate in the Brussels office.

She claims she first complained about bias problems in a meeting with a partner who had reprimanded her for a billing question in an e-mail that was “also inexplicably copied to every other secretary in the office.” The partner informed Menns that the secretaries were the source of “rumors” about her, and the partners had held a meeting to discuss her.

Menns then spoke to managing partner Trevor Soames about hostility she had experienced. “During their meeting, managing partner Soames informed Ms. Menns that he believed that the office staff in particular was treating her in a hostile manner because of her race because, as Mr. Soames stated, they were primarily Flemish, and the Flemish, he noted, can be racist,” the suit says. He then advised her “to do everything possible not to inspire any further distress among white Howrey employees at having to work with such a capable and impressive black woman,” the suit says.

Things went downhill after the meeting, the suit says. One counsel upbraided her at meetings “and found myriad other ways to undermine her,” the complaint alleges.

After she was fired, Menns says, Howrey made “spurious accusations of document retention and excess expenditure,” filing a bar complaint and arbitration claim against her.

Menns worked at Howrey for the first five months of 2009 after she was recruited from Freshfields, Bruckhaus Deringer in Washington, D.C. She is represented by the boutique law firm Sanford Wittels & Heisler.

A statement from Howrey says personnel issues are confidential and it has no comment on the matter. “As a matter of record, it should be noted that Howrey has been a leader among law firms in the area of diversity,” the statement says. It notes that Howrey was ranked 13th among the nation’s top 200 law firms on Minority Law Journal’s 2009 Diversity Scorecard.

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