Law Firms

BigLaw firm concluded partner's email to Black associate wasn't racist because 'he treated other people terribly too,' suit alleges

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Complaints about discriminatory conduct at Troutman Pepper Hamilton Sanders “were often ignored, and, when they were not, met with gaslighting, apathy or swift retaliation,” according to a lawsuit by a fired Black female associate. Image from Shutterstock.

Updated: Complaints about discriminatory conduct at Troutman Pepper Hamilton Sanders “were often ignored, and, when they were not, met with gaslighting, apathy or swift retaliation,” according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday by a fired Black female associate.

The suit by former associate Gita F. Sankano says she was fired after complaining about an “outrageously demeaning, dehumanizing and demoralizing” August 2023 email from partner Matthew Bowsher, who insulted her cognitive ability. The email was “unfortunately characteristic of his behavior towards her and other Black women at the firm,” the suit says.

Bowsher is not named as a defendant in the Jan. 17 suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Sankano is represented by the Wigdor law firm, according to a Jan. 17 press release.

Troutman Pepper took 77 days to investigate the email after Sankano’s complaint.

“It came as no surprise when, on Oct. 27, 2023, the firm concluded that Mr. Bowsher had not engaged in discrimination because he treated other people terribly too,” the suit says.

Sankano was fired a couple of weeks after the conclusion of the investigation, purportedly based on performance, but this was a “preposterous explanation,” the suit says. Sankano “received above-average performance reviews each and every review cycle, including in the performance review she received at the time of her termination.”

The Black associate for whom Sankano did at least 80% of her work was not even consulted or informed about Sankano’s firing, according to the suit.

Bowsher told the ABA Journal in an email that he has “barely had a chance to review” Sankano’s suit after receiving it Wednesday morning.

“I’m still in shock from her allegations, still processing them,” he says. “Her complaint has so many falsehoods, so many blatant omissions, it’s truly unbelievable how someone can paint a picture to skew so far from reality, devoid of context and willfully blind to a host of facts which, if shown, would paint an entirely different picture.”

Michael Willemin, a lawyer for Sankano, responded to Bowsher’s statement in an email to the Journal.

“It is unfortunate but not surprising that Mr. Bowsher is incapable of introspection and an honest self-assessment of his behavior. Nothing was taken out of context. As alleged, multiple Black women at the firm have found him to be discriminatory. We included his entire email in the complaint—the reader can judge,” Willemin said.

The suit claims that Bowsher often “belittled” Sankano, even before he sent the email. He also gave Sankano a negative review, the only one that she received, the suit says. No action was taken to correct his behavior, according to the suit.

The email that led to Sankano’s complaint with HR had criticized Sankano for telling the administration department that it had mistakenly identified Bowsher as the “matter responsible attorney” on two deals. In reality, there was to be a 70/30 split between Bowsher and a senior associate. Sankano told the administration department that there was another “matter responsible attorney” and attached a clip mentioning the 70/30 split.

Bowsher’s email to Sankano said “anyone reading” her sentence would interpret it to mean that she wanted the administration department to make the other attorney 100% matter responsible.

“This is very basic, elementary communication,” Bowsher wrote. “This has nothing to do with training, or understanding of multifamily transactional law, this is daily required functioning. You expressed interest in receiving my input/feedback in real time as to your performance, so I am taking 20 minutes out of my morning right now to explain to you, in very clear objective detailed analysis, that when I see something like this, where it is so undeniably evident that you’ve made an obvious and surprising error, and you’re saying you still don’t see the error even after I’ve taken the time to point it out to you, and you’re still saying you’ve done nothing wrong … I really just don’t know what more I can say here. If you don’t even see the problem, I’m not sure how you’ll fix it, but it’s definitely something you need to fix, because if you had this same type of miscommunication with a client or borrower’s counsel rather than with our internal administrative team, I would have to drop everything and get on the phone immediately to do serious damage control, reassuring them that the deal is actually in capable hands. Bottom line: this is not something I would expect from a fourth-year associate.”

Sankano is a 2018 cum laude graduate of the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. After clerking for a state appeals court judge, she was hired at Pepper Hamilton in 2019. The firm became Troutman Pepper Hamilton Sanders as a result of a merger.

The suit describes Sankano as an “incredible asset” to the firm but said she was “set up to fail” after her hiring because her billable hours were “micromanaged.” Sankano was required to email her hours to her supervisor, rather than directly enter them into the system like others in the office. Sankano was the only Black attorney in the Pepper Hamilton D.C. office at the time.

The supervisor said Sankano’s hours didn’t matter because she charged a flat fee to clients. In reality, the suit says, the partner was making herself look more profitable by reducing Sankano’s hours. Sankano eventually transferred to another practice group.

Diane C. Iselin, director of communications at Troutman Pepper, provided this statement to the Journal: “Ms. Sankano’s employment was terminated for legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons based solely on her performance. We will defend ourselves vigorously in this case.”

Updated Jan. 17 at 4:35 p.m. to include the statement by Michael Willemin.

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