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See you in court

A former Dechert associate will get his day in court, thanks to a recent ruling by a federal judge.

Plaintiff Ariel Ayanna filed a discrimination suit against his former employer in 2010 on grounds that he was let go from his $170,000-a-year job because he spent too much time away from the Boston firm to assist his mentally ill wife after she attempted suicide in 2008.

Ayanna claims, in part, that firm management retaliated against him for taking time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act by withholding work assignments. That, in turn, decreased his billable hours for the year and ultimately led to his termination.

The international law firm, which is represented by Daniel J. Cloherty, responded at the conclusion of discovery with a motion for summary judgment, arguing the widely reported case must fail as a matter of law.

While U.S. District Court Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton agreed that the evidence wasn’t there on Ayanna’s sex discrimination claim, he ruled a jury should decide whether Dechert was liable for violating the FMLA.

“Dechert avers that Ayanna was fired for the nondiscriminatory reason that his billable hours during 2008 were too low,” the judge writes. “While the Court finds plaintiff’s claims somewhat dubious at this stage, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Ayanna and drawing all reasonable inferences in his favor, it acknowledges that Ayanna has presented sufficient evidence to raise a genuine issue of material fact as to whether that proffered reason was actually a pretext for retaliation.”

Gorton, however, concluded that Ayanna had not offered any evidence to back up his argument that he was terminated simply because he was a male who played the role of caregiver at home.

“Ayanna contends that his decision to take FLMA and paternity leave and to prioritize family obligations did not comport with Dechert’s firm culture, which he asserts is dominated by a traditional male ‘macho’ stereotype that promotes relegating family responsibilities to women,” he writes. “[I]n fact, the record reflects that female attorneys who took on caregiving roles also experienced negative outcomes at Dechert.”

Boston lawyer Rebecca G. Pontikes, who represents Ayanna, says the summary judgment ruling is a victory for her client in that it reinforces his contention that a discriminatory environment existed at the firm.

She adds that Dechert’s stated reasons for the firing was actually a pretext for its true motivation: to punish Ayanna for taking FMLA leave.

“I dispute the judge’s ruling that the evidence demonstrates that there was not sex discrimination occurring,” Pontikes says. “That is a decision that should be left to the jury because we have other evidence in the record that showed the culture was hostile to male caregivers and not female.”

Pontikes and co-counsel Lori A. Jodoin of Boston’s Rodgers, Powers & Schwartz are scheduled to try the case in February.

Cloherty, who practices at Collora in Boston, declined to comment.

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