2 partners 'repeatedly hounded' attorney, making her job impossible, $20M sexual harassment suit says
Updated: A former international corporate attorney at Polsinelli has alleged that she experienced “callous gaslighting” and retaliation by the law firm when she complained about sexual harassment by two influential senior partners.
In a $20 million lawsuit filed Sept. 15, plaintiff Julia I. Rix said she was “repeatedly hounded” by the two male partners who wanted her to join them for after-hours drinks and hotel meetings. She was also forced “to endure salacious comments about her appearance” and subjected to an unwanted kiss in “one sordid episode,” the suit alleges.
Rix began work at Polsinelli’s Washington, D.C., office in February 2021.
“Almost immediately, these partners made unprofessional demands on Rix,” the suit says. “They employed bait-and-switch tactics, promising Rix the chance to discuss case strategy or client development—only to use the ensuing meeting as an opportunity to harass her.”
By fall 2022, Rix said she knew that she was being denied business opportunities because the partners wanted to condition “working deals together” with demands for a sexual relationship.
“In short, the predators were making it impossible for Rix to perform her job,” the suit says.
Rix said she turned down an invitation to visit a North Carolina client and to attend a Dallas conference because of fears of sexual harassment by one of the lawyers, Dov H. Scherzer, a technology and privacy partner with an international practice.
Scherzer had taken “a strong, unprofessional liking to Rix,” the suit says. He often asked personal questions and conveyed his preference for “getting together” if they were going to “work deals together.” In one year alone, the suit says, Scherzer made at least nine separate requests for Rix to go to dinner and have drinks with him.
Rix also said she was too upset to attend the second day of a Global Leaders in Law event in October 2022 after she accepted a shared taxi ride home the first day with shareholder Gabriel Yomi Dabiri. He was managing partner of Polsinelli’s New York practice and leader of the firm’s private credit and cross-border finance practice.
During the ride, the suit alleges, Dabiri told Rix that she was “his type” and “made sexually charged passes.”
At a prior Global Leaders in Law event, Dabiri had told Rix that she “clean[s] up well,” according to the suit. And during a prior trip to London on Polsinelli business, Dabiri invited Rix to a work dinner that “was a pretense for Dabiri to boldly express a sexual interest in Rix,” the suit says. On the same trip, Rix turned down Dabiri’s later invitation for dinner and salsa dancing, she said.
Rix had her first negative annual performance review in October 2022. She then lost equity partner status and her compensation was reduced.
At a February meeting in New York City, Rix agreed to meet Scherzer at a restaurant in hopes of salvaging some cooperation, according to the suit. Scherzer followed Rix to her hotel room, and she allowed him to enter for one single drink. In the room, Scherzer kissed Rix without her consent, the suit alleges.
Rix “cajoled Scherzer from her room,” according to the suit. “Unrepentant and undeterred,” Scherzer “texted her incessantly,” requesting to come back to the room, the suit says.
Rix sent a letter informing the firm of harassment in May. Polsinelli fired Rix two days later and failed to return the balance of the equity that she had invested in the firm, the suit says. The firm cited performance issues; Rix said none of the concerns was valid.
“Polsinelli’s callous gaslighting of Rix in response to her claims of sexual harassment is shocking—but not surprising,” the suit says. “Indeed, the firm’s leadership is well known among its employees for turning a blind eye to discriminatory treatment of protected personnel, condoning sexual harassment, and promoting individuals with few skills other than inappropriate workplace relationships to positions of power.”
The firm’s tagline is “What a law firm should be.” But among former partners who have “left the firm in disgust,” Polsinelli is known as “the firm that should never be,” the suit says in a footnote.
Rix’s suit alleges breach of contract, violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, violations of Washington, D.C., human rights law, and infliction of emotional distress. She is a graduate of the Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad College of Law. She also has an LLM from the Georgetown University Law Center and is fluent in several languages.
Rix is represented by Brewer, Attorneys & Counselors in the suit, filed in Washington, D.C., civil court.
William A. Brewer III, a partner at Brewer, Attorneys & Counselors, gave this statement to the ABA Journal: “Like many other women in the legal industry, our client claims she was subjected to unwanted sexual harassment at the hands of senior leaders in the firm. Our client believes that Polsinelli not only failed to protect her but revictimized her by failing to properly investigate her allegations. When our client bravely stepped forward to report the abuse she endured, she claims the firm did the unimaginable: immediately terminated her employment. She filed this matter to lay bare a culture of harassment that has victimized many in the workplace and has been intentionally shielded from public view. That ends today.”
Polsinelli is based in Kansas City, Missouri.
The firm issued this statement: “We have been made aware of a lawsuit against the firm and two of our attorneys, filed by a former shareholder of the firm whose employment was terminated earlier this year. We take allegations of harassment and discrimination very seriously at the firm and have robust reporting procedures in place for such claims. We have and remain committed to providing a workplace free of harassment and discrimination and will respond to the lawsuit accordingly.”
Scherzer and Dabiri did not immediately respond to the ABA Journal’s request for comment.
Updated Sept. 20 at 11:55 a.m. to add Polsinelli’s statement.