Last month, appellate lawyer Ruth Piller filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against her former employer, Houston’s Hays, McConn, Rice & Pickering, where she worked for nine years.
In the EEOC complaint, Piller alleges the firm discriminated against her on the basis of her gender and her neurological disorder-related disability; subjected her to a “sexually hostile work environment”; and retaliated against her. Specifically, Piller alleges the firm terminated her in October 2011 and failed to accommodate her disability; members of the firm’s management, led by shareholder Staton M. Childers, harassed her with emails that included Photoshopped images of Piller’s face on a naked body covered with sushi and on a body in a men’s room holding a tape measure as an unidentified man uses a urinal.
"Hays McConn, through its male management committee, instituted, nurtured, and encouraged a culture among its male attorneys of exposing female partners and associates alike to a systematic, long-term, sexually hostile, gender degrading culture designed to remind and enforce the idea among its female lawyers that Hays, McConn is a men's club and the women are second-class citizens,” Piller writes in her EEOC complaint.
“Because I am a single mother with a developing and debilitating illness, I was an easy mark for the management committee partners’ unlawful and inexcusable conduct,” she writes.
Piller alleges that in 2011 the medications she took for trigeminal neuralgia did not alleviate the symptoms. In July 2011, her billable hours were low and firm management asked her to go on long-term disability because it said her disability was making her less productive, she writes in her EEOC complaint. Piller expected to return to work “without cognitive impairment,” but firm management terminated her after she had been on disability for 90 days, Piller alleges.
Childers did not return a telephone call seeking comment.
Through its lawyer, Littler shareholder Kerry Notestine of Houston, Hays, McConn issued a statement from shareholder Michael C. Hays, who denies the allegations and writes:
"[A] review of numerous emails found on Ms. Piller’s computer clearly indicate that she was an active participant in and, at times, even initiated the conduct about which she now complains. Hays, McConn has a strict and clearly articulated policy prohibiting harassment based on gender and other protected classifications. Had Ms. Piller taken offense at any of the email conversations in which she participated, we very much wish she would have made a complaint so that we could have investigated and addressed the issue immediately. Unfortunately we received no such complaints from her during her employment or from any of the other participants and only became aware of this behavior upon receiving the complaint she filed after leaving the firm. Let me be clear – the behavior exhibited by Ms. Piller and the other participants in these email conversations was unprofessional and unacceptable, however an outside investigator we engaged to look into the matter concluded that it did not violate our harassment policy. Nonetheless, we are now taking corrective action to make sure activity of this sort does not happen again."
In an interview, Piller says she didn’t complain to firm management earlier because “I needed my job and I liked my job.”
Kathleen O’Connor and Bruse Loyd of Houston’s Jones, Gillaspia & Loyd, who represent Piller, say their client will file a state court suit after they receive a release to do so from the EEOC, which they expect within the next two months.
James Ryan, a spokesman for the EEOC in Washington, D.C., says statute forbids the agency from commenting.
-- Miriam Rozen