Former Troutman Pepper associate Gita Sankano filed a discrimination claim against her former employer in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The filing alleges Sankano, the D.C. office’s only Black female attorney suffered racial discrimination and retaliation in violation of Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Washington, D.C., Human Rights Act.
The complaint alleges Sankano received positive reviews for her work in the Multifamily Housing Group in 2020 and 2021, but this changed after a senior partner retired and she began working for partner Matthew Bowsher. As reported by Law.com:
“Almost immediately Ms. Sankano began receiving belittling comments from Mr. Bowsher,” the suit claims, including “aggressive emails questioning her cognitive ability.”
Sankano alleges that she received an “outrageously demeaning, dehumanizing, and demoralizing email” from Bowsher, and was fired when she complained about the behavior.
The email, included in the complaint, begins: “I’m concerned that you thought you were ‘clear’. In fact, you were the opposite of clear. And the fact that you still don’t see this upon further reflection, even after I’ve taken the time to point it out, is what worries me.”
“This is very basic, elementary communication. This has nothing to do with training, or understanding of multifamily transactional law, this is daily required functioning,” the email reads. “I am taking 20 minutes out of my morning right now to explain to you, in very clear objective detailed analysis, that when I see something like this, where it is so undeniably evident that you’ve made an obvious and surprising error, and you’re saying that you still don’t see the error even after I’ve taken the time to point it out to you, and you’re still saying you’ve done nothing wrong … I really just don’t know what more I can say here.”
After receiving the email, Sankano filed a complaint with HR. The retaliation the plaintiff says she received after complaining about the email from Bowsher forms the backbone of the complaint. The filing alleges the firm took “77 days to ‘investigate’ Mr. Bowsher’s discriminatory email.” The result of said investigation, according to the complaint, was that “while Mr. Bowsher’s email on August 3, 2023, was ‘inappropriate,’ it was not racist … they found that Mr. Bowsher treated people at his prior job in the same way, and thus he was not singling out Ms. Sankano.”
Listen, arguing the partner in question is a nondenominational asshole is certainly one defense, but maybe not the slam dunk you want it to be.
The complaint goes on to claim that the firm dismissed her as retaliation for her complaint.
“The purported basis for Ms. Sankano’s termination was performance, but this is a completely preposterous explanation,” the suit continues, providing multiple examples of Sankano’s positive work reviews garnered throughout her term at Troutman Pepper. “In the weeks leading up to Ms. Sankano’s termination she never received any negative comments regarding her work. In fact, during this time, Ms. Sankano accepted an award on behalf of the firm and even had discussions with firm leadership regarding being out on the ‘partner track.’”
Through a representative, the firm denied the allegations, “Ms. Sankano’s employment was terminated for legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons based solely on her performance. We will defend ourselves vigorously in this case.”
The plaintiff is represented by Wigdor Law. Partner Michael Willemin offered this statement on the case, “It is pathetic that in this day and age law firms and other professional services firms continue to discriminate against Black women and, even more so, that they are unwilling to be the least bit introspective and remedy discrimination where it exists. Instead, firms all too often reflexively retaliate against women of color who, like Ms. Sankano, are brave enough to report discrimination in the workplace.”
Sankano also made a statement about her reasons for filing the case, “I’m filing this lawsuit to bring attention to the discrimination that Black female attorneys at Troutman Pepper, and Black professionals everywhere, continue to experience even now in 2024, as well as the callous disregard with which they are often treated when they push for workplace equality.”
Kathryn Rubino is a Senior Editor at Above the Law, host of The Jabot podcast, and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. AtL tipsters are the best, so please connect with her. Feel free to email her with any tips, questions, or comments and follow her on Twitter @Kathryn1 or Mastodon @[email protected].