It's a scenario reminiscent of the Oscar-winning Tom Hanks movie "Philadelphia."
A gay lawyer at a prestigious white-shoe law firm claims that he experienced discrimination and homophobic comments from his co-workers.
Aaron Brett Charney, a 28-year-old associate at New York-based Sullivan & Cromwell, one of the biggest law firms in the country, sued the firm for sexual orientation discrimination, alleging a pattern of anti-gay behavior.
Charney claims that one of the firm's partners, Eric Krautheimer, threw a document at his feet and told him to "bend over and pick it up -- I'm sure you like that" and that partner Alexandra Korry falsely accused him of "carrying on an 'unnatural' homosexual relationship with another male S&C associate," according to court documents.
When Charney filed an internal complaint, partners at the firm suggested that he relocate to a foreign office and fabricated negative reviews accusing him of overbilling clients, Charney claims in the suit filed in New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan. A few hours after filing the suit Tuesday, Charney says the firm told him not to come into the office while they conducted their own internal investigation, and his Blackberry was turned off.
The lawsuit is notable in that associates, who work around the clock for years to become partners, rarely sue their firms for fear of losing their jobs and committing career suicide.
But that didn't stop the young lawyer.
"My career was pretty well sabotaged. They already ruined whatever prospects I had," says Charney. He says that sexual discrimination against gay lawyers is endemic at some firms, and he hopes "that those who were suffering in silence at other firms know that someone was standing up and fighting for their rights."
Sullivan & Cromwell, where Charney has worked since 2005, said in a statement that it had previously investigated the claims and that it "categorically denies Mr. Charney's allegations of discrimination and retaliation."
In general, the firm has a good reputation among gay lawyers. Among the 25 top law firms in New York surveyed in 2003, Sullivan & Cromwell had the highest percentage of gay, lesbian and transgender partners -- almost 7 percent, although it ranked much lower -- at 17th -- for associates, which constitutes 1.48 percent of the total.
"Sullivan Cromwell is far from prejudiced in any way," says John Scheich, the first vice president of the Lesbian and Gay Law Association of New York, adding that the firm often buys a table at his group's annual fundraising dinner dance. "I don't know Aaron Charney or the details of his case, but if I had to line up on one side or the other, I would have to line up with David H. Braff [an openly gay partner at the firm] and Sullivan Cromwell."
Despite Charney's lawsuit and several other similar discrimination cases, gay lawyer groups say that most law firms have become more gay-friendly since 1993, when "Philadelphia" moved moviegoers with its portrayal of an attorney fired because he was gay and HIV-positive.
D'arcy Kemnitz, the executive director of the National Lesbian and Gay Law Association, says that firms have become more receptive to hiring gay lawyers in recent years. In October 2005, NLGLA's annual conference attracted recruiters from 64 law firms and organizations. Last September, NLGLA almost doubled that number, attracting recruiters from 126 employers to its 2006 conference.
Until recently, in states with anti-sodomy laws such as Virginia, "firms said that they would not hire a gay lawyer," says Kemnitz. But in the wake of the Lawrence v. Texas decision in 2003, which struck down the state's anti-sodomy law, things changed. There are now 24 state and regional bar associations for lesbian, gay and transgender lawyers around the country, including in states such as Texas, Wyoming and Missouri.
Yet sexual orientation discrimination persists at many law firms. Eighty-four percent of gay, lesbian and transgender attorneys in Minnesota believe that "bias was a major/moderate problem" at their firms, and 21 percent reported being denied "employment, equal pay, benefits, promotion, etc., due to their sexual orientation," according to a 2006 survey by the Minnesota Lavender Bar Association.
"All the studies indicate a great deal of bias still in the profession," says Kemnitz. "We have to realize just how recent it's been that things have started to change. Now is the time for the legal profession to follow the example of business and improve our commitment to diversity."