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DLA Piper asks judge to dismiss secretary’s lawsuit

Update: The plaintiff in this case subsequently stipulated to a voluntary dismissal, with prejudice. She stated that she had learned during discovery that the facts were different from what she initially believed, and therefore she disavowed all claims and recitations of events made in her complaint.

Things are starting to get interesting in a long-running lawsuit between DLA Piper and a former secretary who says the firm failed to properly investigate her sexual harassment accusations against a real estate partner in 2008.

Nearly two years after Shonnett Sisco filed her complaint in U.S. District Court in Boston, lawyers representing the international firm are asking Judge Denise J. Casper to dispose of the case once and for all.

Sisco claims that her boss at the time, Lawrence E. Uchill, winked and smiled suggestively at her in the days leading up to a lunch he asked her to arrange for the two of them. When she canceled the outing, Sisco says, Uchill asked if he had offended her.

A few months later, Sisco claims in court filings, Uchill stood over her and looked at her chest. As she turned to shield herself, Uchill allegedly moved closer, “reaching from behind Sisco, crossing her chest with his hand, and drawing an imaginary line on a paper in front of Sisco. In doing so, Uchill made offensive physical contact with Sisco and touched her fingers,” the complaint states.

The complaint says that she notified Human Resources and asked to be transferred to an open secretarial slot. Although there was a position available with partner Bruce E. Falby, who is also named as a defendant, the firm never offered her the job, which, Sisco says, went to a lesser-qualified applicant.

Sisco says she was fired not long afterward.

While Sisco is asking Casper to let a jury decide the case, DLA Piper’s Boston counsel, Joshua M. Davis of Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, says in a recently filed motion for judgment on the pleadings that Sisco has no standing to be in court.

It seems that Sisco voluntarily filed for bankruptcy shortly after informing the management team at DLA Piper what allegedly happened with her boss.

As a result, Davis writes, the bankruptcy trustee, not Sisco, is the only person with a legal leg on which to stand.

Although Davis declines to comment, he argues in a Dec. 5 filing that even if the trustee were interested in pursuing the claim, Sisco’s failure to disclose her allegations to the Bankruptcy Court in 2008 would bar the trustee from doing so now.

“Sisco asserted under oath in her bankruptcy Petition that the claim at issue in this case did not exist,” Davis writes. “The doctrine of judicial estoppel precludes her from now attempting to recover on that claim.”

The move comes just a few months after Casper granted a motion to dismiss portions of Sisco’s sexual harassment and hostile work environment claims.

Sisco’s lawyer, Robert S. Catapano-Friedman of Boston, says the judge’s earlier ruling was not a setback.

“We won far more than we lost on that motion,” he says. “To characterize that as a victory for DLA Piper is a mischaracterization.”

As for the firm’s judgment on the pleadings, Catapano-Friedman points out that the bankruptcy case has been reopened. A request will be made to a judge in that proceeding that the trustee formally abandon the case, a move Catapano-Friedman says will open the door for Sisco to proceed with her suit against the firm.

“The omission was inadvertent, and DLA Piper should not be allowed to get past these valid claims because of a technical error that was made in that prior bankruptcy filing,” he says. “We are going to place the issue before [Casper], and hopefully she will exercise her equitable judgment to allow us to proceed.”

Meanwhile, Uchill directed requests for comment to DLA Piper’s managing partner, Elliot M. Surkin, who did not return a call from Lawyers Weekly.

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