Resolving the Title VII Partner-Employee Debate

In January of 2001, a New York court issued an order affirming a plaintiff’s ability to bring suit against a law firm partnership for discriminatory acts that occurred during her tenure as an associate at the firm. The plaintiff, Stacy Ballen-Stier, joined Hahn & Hessen, L.L.P. as an associate and, on January 1, 1997, the firm invited her to join the partnership. According to Ms. Ballen-Stier’s complaint, the words and actions of a fellow partner, Mr. Blejwas, created a hostile and abusive work environment and continued to plague her “even when [she] was away from the office.” Ms. Ballen-Stier alleged she was the victim of sexual harassment that began when she was an associate and continued for a significant period after she became a partner. While permitting Ms. Ballen-Stier to proceed with the claims involving acts that occurred when she was an associate, the court order dismissed the claims regarding harassment that occurred after her promotion to partner. Although the alleged harassment continued in the same manner before and after her promotion, the court reasoned that Ms. Ballen-Stier’s status as partner prevented her from bringing the claims relating to harassment she experienced after her promotion. Discrimination against partners in law firms presents a unique legal issue. While the Supreme Court has recognized that Title VII protects law firm associates from discriminatory acts committed by supervising partners, the circuits are split on the issue of whether Title VII covers partners alleging to be victims of discrimination. In accordance with well-established principles of jurisdiction, plaintiffs seeking protection under Title VII must fall within the purview of the statute. Title VII covers “employers” and “employees.” Courts determine who qualifies as an “employer” or an “employee” by looking to the statutory definitions of the terms, and they decline to exercise jurisdiction if the party alleging discrimination does not qualify as an employee or the party accused of discriminating is not an employer as defined by the statute.