Judge Doesn’t Step In to Block Chadbourne From Ousting Partner Suing Firm

A vote this week to expel Kerrie Campbell from the Chadbourne & Parke partnership will continue after a Manhattan federal judge declined to interfere, finding the firm’s recent press release announcing the vote did not rise to the level of coercion against potential new plaintiffs in Campbell’s gender discrimination case against the firm.

In a ruling from the bench, Judge J. Paul Oetken denied each request in Campbell’s recent emergency motion for corrective action, which asked him to delay the partnership vote, limit Chadbourne’s communication with partners and the press, and issue a corrective notice to any women at the firm who might want to join the suit but fear retribution.

“A hallmark of partnerships is partners’ ability to choose with whom they do business,” said Judge Oetken of his decision not to intervene.

Campbell sued Chadbourne for gender discrimination in August, alleging she was denied equal pay by an all-male management committee that ran the firm like a “boys’ club.” She has since been joined by Jaroslawa Johnson, former head of Chadbourne’s now-defunct Kiev office, and Mary Yelenick, who retired from the firm in December.

Campbell’s emergency motion came a week after Chadbourne issued a statement announcing the partnership vote, saying the decision was an “inevitable result of the choices Ms. Campbell has made.”

Campbell’s lawyers argued the statement implied she was being voted out because she brought the lawsuit, and that it produced a chilling effect on any women at the firm who might consider joining the suit.

Chadbourne’s lawyer, Proskauer’s Kathleen McKenna, countered that Campbell was asked to leave the firm over a year ago, and that the decision to oust her was “nothing new.”

“The firm is saying we gave her the opportunity to leave,” McKenna said. “This is not how we wanted this to end.”

Judge Oetken declined to weigh in on whether the press release was retaliatory, saying such a decision would amount to a ruling on the merits, which would be premature.

“The extent of the threat [of the press release] is based on the indirect threat of one interpretation,” he said, later adding that “one reading of the statement is potentially benign.”

David Sanford, counsel for the plaintiffs, said he was surprised and disappointed by the ruling.

“I thought that the court would at least issue corrective notice,” he said after the hearing. He said he was happy, however, that Judge Oetken issued “very strong words” against coercion even as he denied the plaintiffs’ motion.

A spokesperson for Chadbourne declined to comment.

Now, Chadbourne partners will vote Wednesday on whether to expel Campbell from the firm. In order to pass, the motion will need a two-thirds vote of the partnership, measured by the profit percentage interests of those voting yes. Stanford said that Campbell, who has been out of the office since November for medical reasons, plans to attend the vote.

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