Schwartz Hannum PC is thrilled to announce that Ali Khorsand has joined the Firm.
Ali is an attorney and a member of the Firm’s Labor and Employment and Education Practice groups. He represents businesses, non-profit organizations, and educational institutions in state and federal courts and administrative agencies in matters including alleged violations of FMLA, OSHA, FLSA, ADA, ADEA, and Title VII.
Ali counsels executives and human resources professionals on a broad range of matters including employee performance and conduct, requests for leaves of absence, disability accommodation, non-competition covenants, discipline, and terminations. He conducts internal investigations regarding employee misconduct and sexual harassment allegations, and advises on employee handbooks, employment agreements, and employment policies and procedures.
Prior to joining the Firm, Ali was Counsel at Adler Pollock & Sheehan P.C. in Providence and Newport, Rhode Island and an associate at the Providence office of Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge LLP (now Locke Lord). He previously served as Special Assistant Attorney General in the District of Columbia Office of the Attorney General and as a Judicial Law Clerk to Judge Kendra Ausby, Maryland Circuit Court for Baltimore City.
Ali is a graduate of the Georgetown University Law Center with both a J.D. and LL.M. in Taxation and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
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The Firm, along with lead co-counsel Ropes and Gray LLP, successfully defended Howard Hughes Medical Institute (“HHMI” or the “Institute”), a not-for-profit biomedical research organization, against claims of discrimination based on race, gender, and national origin arising from the decision not to renew the appointment of plaintiff Dr. Jeannie Lee (“Plaintiff” or “Dr. Lee”), a research scientist in the field of molecular biology. HHMI appointed Dr. Lee as an “Investigator” for HHMI in 2000, after which she became an HHMI employee, but continued to do research at her host institution, Massachusetts General Hospital (“MGH”) with funding from the Institute. HHMI awards appointments to scientists who are at the top of their scientific field. Dr. Lee was twice renewed as an Investigator by the senior scientific officers of HHMI, assisted by an advisory panel of scientists who are not HHMI employees. In 2016, Dr. Lee’s application for renewal was denied for a fourth term. Plaintiff alleged that the decision was discriminatory and also alleged that she was underpaid relative to other Investigators based at MGH.
In July, 2017, Dr. Lee, a woman of Asian descent, filed a charge of discrimination with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, alleging that HHMI had discriminated against her on the basis of age, race, sex, and national origin when it decline to renew her service as an Investigator. She also claimed that while she was an Investigator, the Institute had discriminatorily paid her a substandard salary. In mid-2019, Dr. Lee commenced an action in Massachusetts Superior Court alleging discriminatory nonrenewal in violation of Massachusetts anti-discrimination law M.G.L. c. 151B (“Chapter 151B”), and two counts of salary discrimination under Chapter 151B and the Massachusetts Equal Pay Act, M.G.L. c. 149, §105A (“MEPA”), among other contractual claims. HHMI removed the action to the United States District Court for the district of Massachusetts and all but the three claims above were dismissed.
After extensive discovery, HHMI moved for summary judgment on the three remaining claims. With a decision on the Institute’s motion pending, the parties prepared for a trial set to begin on June 27, 2022.
THE DISTRICT COURT DECISION
On June 9, 2022, the Court, Hon. Gorton, J., granted HHMI’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed all of Dr. Lee’s discrimination claims, thereby dismissing the entire suit.
First, with regards to her nonrenewal claim, the Court disagreed with Plaintiff that HHMI had not renewed her for a fourth term as an Investigator due to biases harbored by her reviewers. Dr. Lee had conceded that there was no direct evidence of discrimination, but contended that the low scores and comments she received from the advisory panelists who reviewed her renewal application were not supported in light of her accomplishments, but were instead the result of “unexamined bias on the basis of gender and/or race/national origin,” and that the ultimate decision by the Institute’s scientific officers was tainted by this bias.
The Court found that Plaintiff had made a prima facie case for discrimination. It next addressed HHMI’s response that the decision was the product of collective scientific judgment, and that Dr. Lee had not met the standards for renewal. The Court found that Plaintiff had not offered even minimally sufficient evidence that the legitimate reasons offered for her nonrenewal were pretextual, in other words, that there was no evidence she had been held to a higher standard as a woman of Asian descent than her male and non-Asian comparators, or that the standards for renewal were manifestly unequally applied.
The Court found that the evidence presented, taken together, raised not the slightest inference from which a jury could find a discriminatory motive for the non-renewal. The Court also found that speculation about the influence of bias, unconscious or otherwise, is, without more, insufficient to suggest discriminatory animus in the decision, and her claim could not survive summary judgment.
Pay Discrimination Claims
Second, with regards to Dr. Lee’s two pay discrimination claims, Plaintiff also alleged that during her time as an Investigator, the Institute paid her less than male comparators for similar work, constituting salary discrimination in violation of Chapter 151B and MEPA.
The Court found that Plaintiff’s Chapter 151B claims were time barred, because her claim accrued in August, 2016, when Plaintiff received a salary increase based on an alleged salary equity review by MGH that showed her salary was approximately $26,000 lower than it should have been. The Plaintiff knew or should have known that she had been harmed when she received an increase that was less than the full amount requested by her host institution. Even if she did not know the specific details of the alleged discrimination, she was on notice that she may have suffered harm as of the date that MGH communicated with her about her raise, but did not file her pay discrimination claim until more than 300 days later. Therefore, the 151B pay discrimination claim was dismissed.
Dr. Lee claimed that she was unlawfully underpaid under MEPA for the period of time after the amended version of that statute went into effect in mid-2018, through the time when Dr. Lee was phased out as an Investigator in September, 2018.
MEPA prohibits disparate compensation of individuals of different genders who perform comparable work, but allows variations in pay based on seniority, merit, education, training, and experience.
The Court found that the appropriate comparators for Dr. Lee were other Investigators at the same host institution, but that three of the four male comparators were clearly senior to Dr. Lee or performed substantively different duties than Dr. Lee (such as clinical duties as opposed to exclusively research).
Importantly, the Plaintiff had provided no information regarding the fourth potential comparator from which the Court could determine that their two jobs shared common characteristics or required similar levels of skill, effort, responsibility, and working conditions, such that their pay could be compared. Since Plaintiff had provided no evidence of a proper comparator, the Court entered summary judgment on behalf of HHMI on this claim.
The published District Court opinion is available here.
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Schwartz Hannum PC is thrilled to announce that Chambers USA has ranked Schwartz Hannum PC in Band 4 for the Labor & Employment – Massachusetts practice area. Schwartz Hannum PC is the only woman-owned law firm recognized by Chambers USA in the Labor & Employment – Massachusetts practice area.
One Chambers commentator said "They are adept at handling complex and sophisticated matters and are very good at approaching each situation with sensitivity and nuance."
Chambers USA has also recognized Sara Goldsmith Schwartz and William E. Hannum III as leading attorneys in labor and employment law in Massachusetts. This is the seventeenth consecutive year that Sara has been honored, and Will’s eleventh year being acknowledged by Chambers.
Chambers USA 2022 reports that "[Sara] is responsive, thoughtful and provides extraordinary service." "She engenders trust effectively and manages her team well."
The rankings, which are determined by a rigorous process that includes a detailed written submission by the Firm and in-depth, objective research and interviews, were published in the recent Chambers USA 2022 guide. Chambers and Partners publishes guides worldwide, and has been a recognized leader in its field since 1990.
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Schwartz Hannum PC is thrilled to announce that John A. Duberstein has joined the Firm. He is member of the Firm’s Labor and Employment and Education Practice Groups and provides clients with counsel and representation on a wide variety of matters.
Before joining Schwartz Hannum PC, John was an Assistant Federal Public Defender. He handled hundreds of criminal cases at the trial court level, briefed dozens of appeals, and argued before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals several times.
Prior to that, John practiced at a large regional law firm in Greensboro, North Carolina advising education clients on a broad range of matters, doing civil litigation (including jury trials), as well as health care and employment work. He also clerked for a federal judge in the Middle District of North Carolina.
In law school, John served as editor-in-chief for the North Carolina Journal of International Law & Commercial Regulation. He speaks French and Spanish.
He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Pennsylvania State University.