Pittsburgh U.S. Attorney’s Office Opens New Civil Rights Section as Sex Discrimination Suit Filed Against Local Firm

On Tuesday, December 7, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Pittsburgh launched a civil rights section. According to the Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh’s is the newest of about a dozen federal prosecution offices nationwide to open a section dedicated exclusively to civil rights cases. The section will work in the western district of Pennsylvania.

Representatives from various civil rights-oriented groups attended a closed-door meeting with U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton regarding the new section. They brought with them a laundry list of issues they want to see addressed by the committee, with concerns ranging from local housing discrimination and police abuses to violence against women, hate crimes, and human trafficking.

Also on the list is enforcement action against companies that underpay women, a point of contention that made Pittsburgh headlines earlier this month when the Post-Gazette reported that a female attorney is suing Reed Smith, the city’s second-largest law firm, alleging gender inequality at the firm. A lawsuit filed last week in federal court alleges that Reed Smith’s female employees are rarely promoted and sexual involvement with male bosses is a major factor in possible advancement.

JoEllen Dillon, the plaintiff in the case, also claims that fair pay has been an issue since she started working for Reed Smith in 2002. She moved from her previous firm with two male partners, and both were offered $50,000 more per year than her. The firm increased her salary when the men rebuffed the initial pay disparity – a move that, while considerate, further illustrates the imbalance of power amongst genders at the firm.

Large firms such as Reed Smith have become notorious for discrepancies that violate the Equal Pay Act. According to researchers at Temple University and the University of Texas, there are 200 large law firms where women are less likely to be promoted from associate to partner and earn less even if they receive a promotion. The wage gap can be observed across the board though, and is not exclusive to large firms where millions of dollars of business are being brought in annually, writes Rich Lord of the Post-Gazette:

A salary study by the National Law Journal, which focused on small and midsize law firms, found that male associates made $9,000 more than women, male nonequity partners outstripped their female colleagues by $34,000, and among full partners, the pay gap was $88,000 a year.

Those numbers don’t factor in sexual harassment or engagement in sexual relations as a means of salary control, either. After Dillon was not awarded the promotion to equity partner (meaning she would share in the company’s profits), she took a few months off after giving birth to twins. Her salary was actually decreased by half during this time, she says, and then reduced by another $100,000 just a few months later. Her complaint claims that, in 2007, the firm had 49 male equity partners in Pittsburgh, but only seven female equity partners.  The men earned an average of $129,000 more per year than the women.

These claims, if they are true, are frustrating not only for the blatant mistreatment of female employees, but for the specific way Reed Smith management used sexual bargaining to determine the eligibility of female workers, encouraging them to compete for promotions in a way that is completely exploitative and irrelevant to their ability as attorneys.

Despite laws protecting their employment rights, women are still very obviously drawing the short straw when it comes to fair pay and gender equality in the workplace. We’ll keep you updated on both the Reed Smith case and the civil rights section of the U.S. Attorney’s office as time goes on.

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The Women's Law Project creates a more just and equitable society by advancing the rights and status of all women throughout their lives. To this end, we engage in high-impact litigation, advocacy, and education.
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