Appeals court overturns key ruling for women Law firm faced sex-bias suit

December 31, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

PHILADELPHIA -- A federal appeals court threw out yesterday Nancy O'Mara Ezold's landmark sex-discrimination victory against a Philadelphia law firm in a ruling that women's activists say could reinforce the glass ceiling that often stymies professional women seeking top jobs.

The ruling reverses a 1990 decision that found Ms. Ezold had been denied partnership in the firm, Wolf, Block, Schorr & Solis-Cohen, because she is a woman.

The U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals said U.S. District Judge James McGirr Kelly failed to see that evidence presented during trial did not support Ms. Ezold's claim and "impermissibly substituted [his] own subjective judgment."

The three-judge appeals panel also cautioned against "unwarranted invasion or intrusion into matters involving professional judgments about an employee's qualifications for promotion." It cited as precedent the court's historical reluctance to get involved in academic tenure cases.

Ms. Ezold's case drew national attention because it is the first sex-discrimination case against a law firm to go to trial. And it provided a rare glimpse into the secretive hiring and promotion practices of a high-powered law firm.

"We're enormously pleased," said William Rosoff, a managing partner of Wolf Block.

"Nobody ever said it was easy," said Ms. Ezold, who now works as a lawyer in suburban West Chester, Pa. "When we went into this, we knew the risk we were taking, and it ain't over yet."

Ms. Ezold said she will ask that the case be reheard by the full 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals and, if necessary, taken to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"This opinion is a slap in the face to all working women in America," said Debra Raskin, a lawyer with Vladeck, Waldman, Elias & Englehard, in New York, who represented Ms. Ezold.

Ms. Raskin said yesterday's 90-page decision significantly weakens women's right to challenge hiring and promotion decisions on the grounds of sex discrimination.

In a three-week trial, Ms. Ezold testified that she was told early in 1989 she would not be offered an immediate partnership because she lacked the analytical skills necessary to handle complex legal matters.

Instead, the firm offered her a choice: She could stay on as an associate in the prestigious litigation department, with no hope of a partnership, or she could take over as head of the domestic-relations department, with the promise that she would be named a partner after one year.

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