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Fired BigLaw associate alleges evaluation was defamatory, detractors caused emotional distress

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A fired associate has filed a pro se lawsuit alleging that Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr discriminated against him because of his Cameroonian origin and defamed him in two evaluations. Photo from Shutterstock.

A fired associate at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr has filed a pro se lawsuit alleging that the law firm discriminated against him because of his Cameroonian origin and defamed him in two evaluations.

Jean E. Dassie, a former associate in the intellectual property group, also said he suffered emotional distress as a result of the evaluations and his interactions with a counsel who yelled at him and humiliated him. Other causes of action include retaliation, tortious interference with contract and fraudulent misrepresentation.

Dassie filed the suit Oct. 19 in New York state court.

Reuters, Law360 and Above the Law had coverage of the suit.

Dassie’s year-end evaluation was affected by an incident involving a WilmerHale counsel, Anh-Khoa Tran, and Dassie’s work on PowerPoint slides, the suit said.

While preparing for trial with Tran and others, Dassie implemented some changes to the slides immediately and made a note for the litigation-support vendor to add other changes.

Dassie made a change for Tran that reverted to the original after going to the vendor. When Tran discovered that his change wasn’t there, he walked up to Dassie and said he should always go through the litigation-support vendor for all changes in the future, the suit said. Dassie responded that he would take the counsel’s suggestion into consideration going forward.

Tran insisted and Dassie repeated that he would take the command into consideration, pointing out that there would be many instances in which it wouldn’t be prudent. After going back and forth several times, Tran began “publicly chastising” Dassie in a crowded room, the suit said.

“Tran was getting increasingly angry,” the suit said. “His lower lip was quivering. To avoid the continuing optics of being publicly reprimanded in the middle of the crowded room and to de-escalate the situation and get Tran to walk away, [Dassie] retorted ‘too bad, so sad,” the suit said.

The suit described Dassie’s retort as an effort “to creatively diffuse the situation.”

Tran left but returned and asked Dassie to meet him outside, where he “proceeded to scream” at Dassie, the suit said. Dassie explained that in the middle of a trial, deadlines may not allow changes to slides to be made by the litigation-support vendor in the first instance.

Eventually, Tran told Dassie that he doesn’t want him to “act like a robot,” and he can use his judgment. Tran reported the incident to the firm nonetheless.

Dassie described two other alleged incidents involving Tran. He once told Dassie that his views on the judicial system were due to “colonialism,” the suit said. Another time, he allegedly belittled Dassie when he asked for a ride back to the hotel after a day of working together.

There were two other associates nearby when Dassie asked for a ride. According to the suit, Tran “raised his voice and began speaking to the other associates, telling them that [Dassie] should walk to whomever he wants a ride from.” Tran then started laughing, the suit said.

Dassie’s year-end 2022 evaluation included praise, but he was was placed on an interim review plan because of the incident involving Tran and because of his complaint that he wasn’t being given substantive work in another matter, the suit said.

Dassie was told during the evaluation that his substantive legal skills weren’t at issue, but he had to work on his “soft” skills.

In midyear evaluation in 2023, “the firm pivoted” and criticized Dassie’s substantive work, the suit said. He received above-average scores, but the review was nonetheless used as a pretext to fire Dassie, according to the suit.

The suit also alleges that these incidents prompted emotional distress:

  • A now-retired partner wrongly accused Dassie of sending documents with tracked edits to a pro bono client. In reality, Dassie sent clean documents to the client but sent documents with edits to the partner and another senior associate. According to Dassie, the partner “raised her voice and began yelling,” telling Dassie that he doesn’t have sufficient attention to detail and he “doesn’t have what it takes to make it at WilmerHale.”

  • While working on telecommunications litigation, Dassie had a strategy disagreement with a senior associate concerning a trial exhibit list. He was taken off team meetings for the exhibit list, even though he knew the facts of the case better than anyone on the team. He continued to piece together changes to the list, however, and his strategy was chosen for the trial. Dassie “held the meritorious position, but was nonetheless reprimanded,” the suit said.

  • Dassie was “socially ostracized” by partners working on the telecommunications matter because he disclosed that he would be taking a vacation the week following the trial. A manager coordinating the trial team sent an email to a subset of the litigation team with her phone number in case of emergencies. Dassie was not included. He was also allowed to go to court for only a couple of hours for observation, while others were allowed a whole day, the suit said.

  • A partner told Dassie that his suggested line of questioning for preparing a witness was “stupid.”

WilmerHale and Tran did not immediately respond to the ABA Journal’s request for comment.

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