Judge deals setback to $6 million ADA, harassment suit brought by legal secretary vs Winston & Strawn

By Scott Holland | Nov 21, 2015

A disability discrimination lawsuit brought by a legal secretary seeking at least $6 million in damages from law firm Winston & Strawn has hit a roadblock in federal court.

A disability discrimination lawsuit brought by a legal secretary seeking at least $6 million in damages from law firm Winston & Strawn has hit a roadblock in federal court.

U.S. District Judge Samuel Der-Yeghiayan last week granted the law firm’s partial motion to dismiss and a motion to strike claims levied in July by plaintiff Dyhan Slaughter.

Slaughter started her job as a legal secretary at Winston & Strawn in November 1998. In her complaint, she placed the blame for medical conditions from which she suffers, including epileptic seizure and progressive hearing loss, on harassment from several coworkers and superiors.

In response to Slaughter’s lawsuit, the firm argued the claims in three of Slaughter’s counts — intentional disability discrimination; interference, coercion and intimidation; and unlawful inquiry of the nature of her disability — were time barred because she did not file within 90 days of receiving notice of her right to sue from the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Slaughter had filed a complaint with the EEOC on Nov. 8, 2013, but then did not file a second complaint until April 2, 2015.

Though she argued the doctrine of equitable tolling allows her to file outside the 90-day period, Der-Yeghiayan noted that exception is “granted sparingly only when extraordinary circumstances far beyond the litigant’s control prevented timely filing” and said, among other factors, the timing of Slaughter’s seizures still should not have prevented a more timely filing.

Winston & Strawn also argued Slaughter’s count of intentional infliction of emotional distress is preempted by the Illinois Human Rights Act and that she “failed to plead sufficiently ‘outrageous’ conduct” on the firm’s part to sustain the claim. Der-Yeghiayan agreed the complaint more properly belongs in front of the Illinois Human Rights Commission because Slaughter’s claim is based on “the same alleged conduct and same alleged wrongs that she relies upon to support her discrimination and retaliation claims.”

The judge also agreed the claims “do not plausibly suggest extreme and outrageous conduct,” noting precedent stating “for conduct to be extreme and outrageous it must go beyond all bounds of decency and be considered intolerable in a civilized community.”

Winston & Strawn further sought to strike 150 paragraphs from Slaughter’s complaint “on the grounds that they are immaterial, impertinent and relate solely to allegedly wrongful conduct outside of the applicable statutes of limitations.” Among the points of contention are a broad range of factual allegations regarding Slaughter’s work environment and relationship with colleagues going as far back as May 2009.

Though Der-Yeghiayan noted “motions to strike generally are disfavored,” he also said Winston & Strawn “correctly pointed out that the complaint is replete with allegations of time-barred conduct. Striking the portions of the complaint identified by Winston … would serve to remove irrelevant facts from the complaint and would promote judicial economy.”

Counts in Slaughter’s complaint Winston & Strawn did not ask to be dismissed under the motion considered by the judge in this instance include a retaliation claim brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act, an ADA discrimination claim based on an alleged denial of compensation, and an ADA claim alleging failure to accommodate. For those claims, Slaughter said her resulting severe damages “include but are not limited to emotional, medical, psychological, physical, financial and other damages.”

For those three counts, she seeks “an award of the maximum relief available.” In her original complaint, she had linked a request for $6 million in compensatory and punitive damages to the intentional infliction of emotional distress complaint.

Slaughter is acting as her own attorney in pursuing the claims against Winston & Strawn.

Winston & Strawn is represented by the firm of Schiff Hardin, of Chicago.

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Schiff Hardin LLP Winston and Strawn LLP

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