CHICAGO -- A Chicago federal appellate court has upheld a $35,000 sanction ordered by a lower court against a former paralegal at a Chicago law firm, who sued the firm for alleged discrimination, then withdrew the suit and then repeatedly refused to satisfy the firm's discovery requests for copies of records and emails.
The April 26 ruling was delivered by circuit judges Michael Kanne, David Hamilton and Amy Barrett, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Their decision favored the Chicago-based global legal firm of Baker & McKenzie in an action brought against it by Elena Stephens in October 2017 in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.
Stephens, of Evanston, started working as a paralegal at Baker & McKenzie in December 2015, according to court papers. Stephens alleged she rebuffed sexual advances and, as a result, was demoted. She also alleged derogatory remarks were made about her Russian heritage and accent. She complained to management, but to no avail, according to Stephens. She was fired in January 2017.
Stephens lodged a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but that agency found it was "unable to conclude that the information obtained established violations."
Acting as her own attorney, Stephens then sued Baker & McKenzie, seeking $200 million in compensatory, emotional and punitive damages. She said the firm annually makes $2 billion, "so they need to feel the pain for wrongdoing," according to court papers.
Stephens refused to comply with the firm's discovery requests for emails and information as to how she obtained the firm's confidential listserv of employees, to whom she had sent, shortly after her termination, messages criticizing her supervisors.
Stephens also refused discovery requests for records related to the therapy she said she underwent in response to her alleged mistreatment. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer ordered Stephens to turn over the records, or else reduce her damages demand to less than $100,000.
Stephens dismissed her suit so she would not have to comply with both requests.
Baker & McKenzie then filed motions to strike one of Stephens' filings that the firm said was defamatory and for Stephens to pay the firm's attorney fees of $35,445 as sanction for her "discovery abuse." Pallmeyer granted the motions, prompting Stephens to appeal.
The appellate court backed Pallmeyer.
"The court [Pallmeyer] reasonably saw no relevance in preserving a filing that Stephens submitted in support of the case that she voluntarily abandoned, that the court did not even consider, and that Baker & McKenzie found defamatory," the appeals panel reasoned, regarding the motion to strike.
The panel also agreed with Pallmeyer's decision to sanction Stephens.
"Stephens repeatedly and without any justification refused to obey the court’s orders to produce discovery relevant to her claim and Baker & McKenzie’s defense," the judges ruled. "She ultimately withdrew her case only to avoid complying. The award, therefore, was not unreasonable or unjust."
The appellate panel addressed the appeal without oral arguments, basing its decision on documents.
Baker & McKenzie was defended by Benton Firm LLC and Butler, Rubin, Saltarelli & Boyd, both of Chicago.