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Friday, December 8, 2023 | Back issues
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Ex-Dechert Lawyer Has a Case for Unfair Firing

(CN) - A law firm may have retaliated, but did not discriminate, in firing a man whose billable hours dropped after his pregnant wife attempted suicide, a federal judge ruled.

From 2006 to 2008, Ariel Ayanna worked as an associate attorney with Dechert LLP, a law firm with 26 offices worldwide.

Ayanna worked in the firm's Boston office in his first year, met his billable hours goal and received positive performance reviews.

His second year, Ayanna requested a transfer to the firm's Munich office for nine months while his wife completed a Fulbright scholarship in Germany. Because attorneys work fewer hours in Germany, Ayanna was told he would not need to meet the billable hours requirement for U.S. attorneys while he was in Munich.

Nevertheless, Ayanna expressed concern about his reduced hours and requested additional hours, but was not assigned any. He still billed more hours than any other associate in the Munich office.

While in Munich, Ayanna's wife became pregnant and attempted to commit suicide. Ayanna took emergency leave to care for his wife, and then took four weeks paternity leave when his child was born.

When Ayanna returned to Dechert's Boston office a month earlier than scheduled, the firm allegedly assigned him to work for a partner who was hostile toward him because of his recent leave.

In October 2008, Ayanna received a "fair" performance review, and was ranked 62 out of 65 associates, in large part because his annual billable hours fell far below the 1,950 goal for associates in the Boston office.

The firm fired him in December 2008, and he a federal complaint two years later alleging retaliation under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and sex discrimination.

Dechert moved for summary judgment on both counts, which U.S. District Judge Nathaniel Gordon partly granted Wednesday in Boston.

"At the time he was fired, Ayanna was told by Dechert Partner Joseph Fleming that he was terminated due to his 'fair' rating and his 'personal issues,'" the ruling states. "A reasonable jury could find that the comment was directed at Ayanna's recent need to take FMLA leave."

Dechert had compared Ayanna's annual billable hours directly with those of other Boston associates, although he worked in Munich for most of the year, the court found.

"A reasonable jury could find that had Ayanna not taken FMLA leave, Dechert would have treated his reduced billable hours simply as an expected byproduct of his temporary assignment to Germany," Gordon wrote.

Though Ayanna may have a case for retaliation, his sex discrimination claim failes because Gordon said that the "broad claims about the 'macho' culture at Dechert, without any facts specifically showing instances of discrimination against him, are inadequate to support a finding that he was fired due to his gender."

At most, Dechert partners may have not given Ayanna additional hours "because Ayanna prioritized his family over his employment responsibilities," the decision states.

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