I don’t generally write about cases from jurisdictions outside Illinois or the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, partly out of lack of relevance to my practice and partly out of a lack of familiarity with the caselaw of other states. I’ll make an exception for the June 30, 2020 ruling in Nicole Urquhart-Bradley v. Cushman & Wakefield, Inc., et al out of the District of Columbia because it (1) concerns race and gender discrimination in employment and (2) concerns an Illinoisan trying to avoid being brought into court in D.C.
Urquhart-Bradley’s complaint alleges a series of violations of both federal anti-discrimination law and the D.C. Human Rights statute by both her employer, the Chicago-based real estate firm of Cushman and Wakefield, and their Chicago-residing Chief Executive Officer of the Americas, Shawn Mobley. Urquhart-Bradley worked at the firm’s D.C. office for some time before the trouble really started in 2016, when she was promoted to replace a departing executive. Urquhart-Bradley, an African-American woman, was assigned a lessor title than her predecessor even though she was doing the same job (a pattern of practice with female executives, according to Urquhart-Bradley).
Her predecessor, who had been offered a substantial retention bonus prior to leaving, then immediately began poaching employees for his new company. Cushman & Wakefield spent a good deal of money on further retention bonuses to keep their team as intact as possible. Given the context, Mobley had discussions with Urquhart-Bradley about whether she had been approached by competitors. Urquhart-Bradley adamantly said that she had no intention of leaving and that she didn’t even want a retention bonus, but instead asked that she have her contract with the company modified to include protective language similar to other members of the leadership team. What happened next, according to Urquhart-Bradley’s complaint, is that Mobley said that she should start looking for another job because he and other s had lost confidence in her. And then when Urquhart-Bradley refused to resign he called her and fired her over the telephone. And then Mobley claimed that she had been negotiating a position with a competitor. And then the company claimed that the separation had been a mutual separation which was very much not the case.
So Urquhart-Bradley filed suit in Washington D.C., alleging that she had been terminated in violation of violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981, and the District of Columbia Human Rights Act, D.C. CODE §§ 2-1401, and further that Shawn Mobley had aided and abetted this wrongful conduct.
Mobley (who had never actually even been to Washington D.C.) contested that the court had personal jurisdiction to bring him into the suit in D.C., and the District Court granted his request for dismissal on the grounds that his only minimum contacts to the venue was his official actions as an officer of the corporation, the so-called “fiduciary shield doctrine.” The D.C. appellate court on Tuesday overturned this dismissal, straightforwardly stating that this doctrine lacks any kind of basis in either the relevant D.C. statutes or in the due process clause governing jurisdiction, and that the U.S. Supreme Court had flatly rejected the suggestion that employees who act in their official capacity are somehow shielded from suit in their individual capacity. In other words, Mobley couldn’t get out of the case quite that easily.
Although jurisdiction could not be asserted over him as a result of the actions or policies of the company that he worked for (for instance, just because Cushman & Wakefield had an office in D.C. doesn’t mean that all of their employees can be called into court there), the court notes that Mobley himself “i) oversaw Cushman & Wakefield’s District of Columbia office; (ii) had continuing contacts with that office and its employees, including numerous communications with Urquhart-Bradley; (iii) put the District of Columbia-based Urquhart-Bradley on his Executive Leadership team, and then retracted that role; and (iv) engaged in a series of adverse communications with her regarding her position at the company, culminating in him personally firing her for allegedly discriminatory reasons.” Nicole Urquhart-Bradley v. Cushman & Wakefield, Inc., et al, No. 19-7116 (D.C. Cir. 2019). While technically the court directed that the lower court reassess the jurisdiction decision, it seems pretty clear from the opinion itself which way the appellate court expects this to go on remand.
– Attorney Travis Dunn