Female attorney sues law firm, charging bias Former associate denied partnership

May 29, 1992|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Staff Writer

A former associate at the large Baltimore law firm, Semmes Bowen & Semmes, charges in a federal lawsuit that she was passed over for promotion to partner because she is a woman.

In the complaint, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, Janet M. Truhe, 33, of Catonsville says that she was denied promotion despite performing better than did some male lawyers who were elevated to partner at the 141-attorney firm.

Ms. Truhe's suit, which seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, also portrays the work atmosphere at Semmes as "sexually discriminatory." For example, it alleges that:

* Male partners touch and make unwelcome advances toward female employees.

* A male senior partner vowed never to work with another woman after two female associates left the firm because of family concerns.

* A male department head refused to share credit with female associates who brought in clients, although he did so with men.

* Male partners berate unmarried female employees about their marital status.

* One male partner told Ms. Truhe in May 1991 that she placed too much emphasis on her career and that she needed to find a husband and have children.

Pamela S. Horowitz of Washington, Ms. Truhe's lawyer, said yesterday that those remarks and practices were part of a pattern that was tolerated by the partners at Semmes.

Robert A. McIntire, administrative partner at Semmes, said he was unaware of any of the acts and remarks cited in the suit.

"I can tell you we have a firm policy against sexual harassment, and we do not condone acts of sexual harassment," said Mr. McIntire, who was speaking for the law firm.

He denied that the firm passed over Ms. Truhe because she is a woman. He said that Semmes has 28 female associates and 11 female partners, including Kathleen H. Meredith, who is second in command as vice chairwoman.

The law firm has 54 male partners.

A graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, Ms. Truhe joined the firm in 1983. During her tenure, the suit said that she was given more responsibility and performed at a higher level than did most of her male counterparts, and that she had earned a reputation in the profession as a capable litigator in trial and appellate courts.

Ms. Truhe was elected senior associate in June 1988. She and three male associates were up for election as partners in January 1992, after what she says had been a normal eight-year period as an associate. She was the only one not promoted.

Ms. Truhe left the firm in January and now is a partner at the Baltimore firm, Bernstein Sakellaris & Ward.

"Semmes remains a male bastion, where subjectivity is exercised in favor of men, derogatory statements about and action toward women are tolerated, and sex stereotyping is routinely practiced," the suit says.

Jacqueline D. Wyman, president of the Women's Bar Association of Maryland, said officials in her organization recently had discussed whether they should investigate the issue of gender bias because of allegations of sexual discrimination in law firms in other cities.

"We haven't gotten complaints, but we're wondering if it does happen in Baltimore," said Ms. Wyman, whose group now is trying to determine whether there is gender discrimination in the state's courts. "We've heard rumblings."

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