Judge keeps ex-Davis Polk associate's bias case alive, sanctions lawyer

3 minute read

The logo of the law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell in their legal offices in New York City, New York, U.S., June 2, 2021. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

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  • Ruling allows some discrimination, retaliation claims to advance
  • N.Y. judge finds plaintiff Kaloma Cardwell can't afford sanctions but docks his attorney $4K

(Reuters) - A Manhattan federal judge is refusing to shut the door on former Davis Polk & Wardwell associate Kaloma Cardwell's racial discrimination lawsuit against the elite New York law firm.

U.S. District Judge Gregory Woods on Thursday tossed some claims against the firm and levied sanctions against Cardwell's lawyer. But the judge declined to dismiss Cardwell's discrimination and retaliation claims against a group of current and former Davis Polk partners, finding that Cardwell adequately alleged he was removed from a deal team because he is Black and later fired after claiming discrimination.

Cardwell sued Davis Polk nearly two years ago, alleging he was the victim of a campaign of racial discrimination during his four-year tenure there, and that his complaints about discrimination led to negative performance evaluations and being stiffed on billable hours and professional development opportunities.

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In Thursday's mixed ruling, Woods threw out claims that two Davis Polk partners underutilized Cardwell, failed to communicate with him, and fired him because he was Black, finding that they were inadequately pleaded.

And while Woods ruled Cardwell can once again amend his complaint, he forbade the former associate from claiming that the firm maintained policies that had an unintentional discriminatory effect.

Woods also sanctioned Cardwell's attorney, New York-based solo practitioner David Jeffries, $4,000 in a separate order Thursday after Cardwell failed to answer Davis Polk's interrogatories and produce documents.

That's a far cry from the nearly $100,000 Davis Polk's attorneys at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison sought, but Woods noted that Jeffries, who specializes in criminal defense, is litigating Cardwell's case pro bono and had argued that a significant sanction would cause him financial harm.

A $4,000 sanction is "a dramatic reduction from the cost that plaintiff’s unjustifiable positions in discovery actually imposed on defendants," and it "does not make defendants whole," Woods wrote.

"However, given the equitable considerations outlined above, an award of this amount is reasonable," Woods added.

Woods opted not to sanction Cardwell himself due to his current financial situation. Cardwell said he has been unemployed since Davis Polk fired him in early 2018, has no savings, cannot afford his rent, and has not been making payments to his student loan debt.

Cardwell "has presented evidence showing that he is financially incapable of satisfying an award of sanctions," Woods wrote.

This isn't the first time the judge has sanctioned Jeffries or his client. Last August, Woods ordered Jeffries to pay $2,500 in attorney fees after they missed a key discovery deadline in March 2020.

Jeffries and a representative for Davis Polk did not respond to requests for comment.

The case is Cardwell v. Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP, et al., U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 1:19-cv-10256.

For Cardwell: David Jeffries

For Davis Polk: Bruce Birenboim, Jeh Johnson, Susanna Buergel and Marissa Doran of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison

Read More:

Davis Polk seeks nearly $100K in attorney fees from ex-associate in bias case

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David Thomas reports on the business of law, including law firm strategy, hiring, mergers and litigation. He is based out of Chicago. He can be reached at d.thomas@thomsonreuters.com and on Twitter @DaveThomas5150.