Law360 (May 2, 2019, 9:31 PM EDT) — Robinson Bradshaw & Hinson PA asked a North Carolina federal court on Thursday to trim state law claims from a black female attorney’s civil rights and deceptive trade practices suit, saying that her allegations of mistreatment are essentially just a groundless “public attack” on its diversity policies.
In a motion to dismiss, the firm asked that four claims lodged by associate Sharika M. Robinson under North Carolina state law be tossed from her suit: claims of fraud, unfair and deceptive trade practices, and breach of contract against the firm and of tortious interference with a contract against four individual defendants.
The firm argued Thursday that the court should reject Robinson’s allegations that its diversity and inclusion program amounted to unlawful activity “because her allegations can support no valid legal claims.”
“At its core, this is a dispute in which an employee disagrees with her employer’s decisions and feedback regarding her work,” the firm said in its motion. “Courts have routinely held that such disagreements do not support legal claims against employers absent some evidence of wrongdoing. Yet, instead of alleging facts that would suggest actual wrongdoing, plaintiff converts her disagreements into a public attack on her employer’s diversity efforts.”
Robinson, who joined the Carolinas-based Robinson Bradshaw as an associate in 2015, accused the firm in her suit last month of engaging in a pattern of gender and racial discrimination that belies its public marketing to prospective clients and employees as being committed to diversity and inclusion.
In addition to the firm, Robinson named as defendants managing partner Allen Robertson, chair of the firm’s litigation practice Robert Harrington, and shareholders Jonathan Krisko and Gregory Skidmore.
At one point in her complaint, she categorized the firm as being like a “contemporary version of an old-fashioned Southern plantation.”
Her complaint claimed that white men at the firm routinely overlooked attorneys of color and women when delegating essential work, and that she was consistently sidelined and deprived of advancement opportunities.
Moreover, Robinson claimed the firm subjected her and other women and people of color to a hostile work environment.
Her complaint cited several incidents as examples, including that the firm held a separate Christmas party for black attorneys — where they were barred from discussing issues regarding race — and that she was demeaned by a supervising partner, whose behavior aggravated her stress levels and contributed to triggering an induced pregnancy. She also said the firm’s managing partner told her she would not be able to practice law full time with a newborn.
Robinson Bradshaw has denied her allegations, saying Thursday that the firm and its lawyers have long “been leaders in promoting diversity and inclusion” among firms in the Charlotte area, and that it “does not discriminate based on race or any protected factor.”
“To the contrary, it has engaged in significant efforts to recruit, train, and retain diverse attorneys,” the firm said. “By suggesting otherwise, plaintiff seeks to undermine RBH’s genuine attempt to make a meaningful impact on the legal profession.”
Among the arguments offered by the firm in Thursday’s filing was that Robinson’s breach of contract claim can’t hold up because she is an at-will employee and doesn’t have an employment contract.
Her fraud claim should be dismissed because she didn’t show that the firm misrepresented any material fact or that she relied on any purported misrepresentation, according to the motion.
“None of the representations cited by plaintiff constitutes a material misrepresentation of fact from which a fraud claim can arise,” the firm said in its motion, adding that many of the purported misrepresentations she pointed to are “statements of opinion and aspiration [and] not material facts.”
As to her tortious interference claim, the firm said that too must be tossed since she didn’t claim that the firm didn’t live up to any contract with her “on account of any individual defendant’s conduct.”
“The complaint likewise does not allege that any of the individual defendants induced [the firm] to terminate its at-will employment relationship with plaintiff,” Thursday’s motion said. “Indeed, she is still employed. But even if [the firm] had terminated plaintiff’s employment and the individual defendants had induced her termination, she would still have no claim for tortious interference because the complaint admits that the individual defendants acted within the scope of their supervisory roles, making their actions justified under the law.”
Robinson’s practice focuses on complex business disputes, including labor and employment, commercial real estate, and bankruptcy matters, according to her page on the firm’s website. She is alleging disparate treatment, unlawful retaliation and a hostile work environment under Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1870 in addition to her state law claims.
In a statement to Law360, the firm said it “unequivocally” denies Robinson’s characterizations of it and its partners.
“Ms. Robinson attempts to use our firm’s longstanding commitment to diversity and inclusion against us,” it said. “Not only does this tactic sadden us, but it undermines the genuine efforts of many in the legal community. The motion to dismiss is the first step in defending our firm and our partners against the complaint’s false allegations and misguided theories.”
Carmen Caruso, counsel for the plaintiff, issued a statement to Law360 noting that “there [was] no challenge to the civil rights claims that are the core of the case” and that those claims “will be proceeding as we believed when we filed.”
“We will respond to the defendants’ partial motion to dismiss on the schedule set by the court, and won’t argue the motion in the press,” she added. “Suffice it to say we believe our claims under challenge have merit. We understand Robinson Bradshaw is looking for sympathy from the legal community and trust the legal community will remember this defendant’s bold talk when the evidence comes in.”
Robinson is represented by Carmen D. Caruso of Carmen D. Caruso Law Firm, Linda C. Chatman of Chatman Law Offices LLC, and T. Greg Doucette of The Law Offices of T. Greg Doucette PLLC.
The firm is represented in-house by Charles E. Johnson, and by Joshua Van Kampen of Van Kampen Law PC, and Grace E. Speights and Jocelyn R. Cuttino of Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP.
The case is Robinson v. Robinson Bradshaw & Hinson PA et al., case number 3:19-cv-00109, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina.
–Additional reporting by Sam Reisman. Editing by Adam LoBelia.