Risk Management

CFO Slaps Ex-Employer with Bias Suit

The longtime finance chief of a major law firm alleges discrimination and unlawful termination after her bout with cancer.
David McCannOctober 5, 2011

Proskauer Rose, a large law firm well known for defending companies against employment-discrimination lawsuits, finds itself in the ironic position of being sued for discrimination by its former CFO.

Elly Rosenthal, 57, is claiming age, gender, and disability discrimination, as well as wrongful termination. She is seeking $10 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

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Rosenthal had been Proskauer’s finance chief for 15 years when, in 2007, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She took medical leaves totaling several months in 2008. Upon returning, she was offered a newly created position, chief administrative financial officer, a more operational role overseeing the firm’s offices, working on projects, and negotiating contracts. A member of her staff was promoted to CFO.

For Rosenthal, it was clearly a demotion. Still, she tells CFO, she was excited. “I had been doing the CFO drill for many years and saw an opportunity to broaden my horizons,” she says.

However, according to her complaint, filed today in New York State Supreme Court, a number of key Proskauer officers thereupon launched a lengthy campaign to “marginalize” her.

For example, the complaint alleges, the new CFO, Jim Barbaria, removed Rosenthal from a daily voice-mail message regarding significant collections for the firm and instructed his staff to no longer share financial information with her. When the firm’s New York office moved to a new building, she was assigned to a location in a different building eight blocks away.

Also, she was challenged by the firm’s chief operating officer to “intensely focus on radically changing the way [Proskauer does] things.” But her ideas for a new e-billing system, a new billing template system, and an automated package-tracking process were either approved but not funded, delayed until after she left the firm, or credited to another firm officer, the complaint states.

Finally, in March of this year, Rosenthal was terminated. The only reason given, she says, was that there was “no role” for her any longer at Proskauer. In 18 years with the firm, the court filing states, she was continually commended for excellent performance and never received a negative review.

Proskauer did not respond by press time to a request for comment.

The complaint does not make clear any bases for claims of age or gender discrimination. Disability discrimination may make for a better case. Rosenthal’s attorney, David Sanford of law firm Sanford Wittels & Heisler, says there could be a certain logic in marginalizing and firing someone in a key position if there were concerns over the person’s health and stamina. Still, he points out, discrimination based on disability status is illegal under New York State and New York City laws, which use essentially the same language as those outlawing racial, age, and gender discrimination.

But the plaintiff and her attorneys have time to decide what they would ultimately argue at a trial, which could be 12 to 18 months away. “These cases are complicated,” says Sanford. Before determining the strongest case to put on, his firm will get testimony from various people, review documents, see how Proskauer has treated others in similar situations, and look at workforce composition, gender distribution, age distribution, and the firm’s executives and management committee.

Proskauer rebuffed attempts to settle the matter before the lawsuit was filed, according to Sanford and Rosenthal, who is now preparing for a legal battle against people she has known and worked with closely for many years. “It doesn’t feel good,” she says. “It’s sad it has come to this, that we were pushed to take these steps.”