August 23, 2013 | by Chris Johnson
Chicago firm to defend Exxon Mobil against charges of anti-gay bias
Exxon, Mobil, gay news, Washington Blade

Seyfarth Shaw is representing Exxon Mobil in a lawsuit alleging anti-gay bias against the company. (Photo of Exxon sign by Ildar Sagdejev, photo of Mobil sign by Terence Ong; courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

A Chicago-based law firm known as Seyfarth Shaw is representing oil-and-gas giant Exxon Mobil against charges of alleged anti-gay bias in hiring practices, according to the LGBT group Freedom to Work.

Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, told the Washington Blade on Thursday night the Chicago office of Seyfarth Shaw elected this month to represent Exxon Mobil in the lawsuit, which was filed by his organization and is pending before the Illinois Department of Human Rights.

“I believe that even the most disgusting criminals should have access to counsel when they violate the law, and Exxon’s shareholders will now pay big bucks for Seyfarth’s lawyers, who are probably some of the most expensive corporate defense lawyers in the country,” Almeida said. “But I don’t think there’s any need for Seyfarth to run up their billable hours since Freedom to Work would like to settle the case today.”

Seyfarth Shaw is a massive international law firm and employs more than 800 attorneys throughout the world. It bills itself on its website as “a national platform and an international gateway” that helps businesses in litigation, employment, corporate, real estate and employee benefits.

Freedom to Work filed the lawsuit against Exxon Mobil in May after conducting a test in which it sent two fictitious resumes for a job opening at the company in Illinois. One was from a more qualified applicant who outed herself as LGBT on her resume; the other was a less qualified applicant who gave no indications about her sexual orientation or gender identity. The less qualified non-LGBT applicant received multiple callbacks, the more qualified LGBT applicant received nothing.

The organization filed a complaint against the company on the basis that it had violated Illinois state law, which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Legal precedent within Illinois and the U.S. Supreme Court allows for paired-resume testing as a basis to file an employment discrimination lawsuit against a company.

Almeida said that Exxon Mobil could settle the case by adopting a policy prohibiting discrimination against LGBT workers.

“In fact, one settlement option would be for Exxon to copy and paste Seyfarth’s own LGBT workplace policies, which have previously earned the lawfirm a 100 percent LGBT rating from the HRC,” Almeida said. “Exxon could also copy and paste the Chevron LGBT workplace policy, and we would accept that as part of the settlement.”

The Chicago office of Seyfarth Shaw didn’t respond to multiple requests this week to confirm that it has decided to represent Exxon Mobil or explain why it has decided to represent the company.

William Holbrook, an Exxon Mobil spokesperson, had no comment on whether his company selected Seyfarth Shaw to defend it against the Freedom to Work lawsuit.

Mike Coffey, a spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Human Resources, wouldn’t confirm that Seyfarth Shaw is participating in the lawsuit, but affirmed the case is under investigation.

Seyfarth Shaw is known for adopting pro-LGBT policies. It has a 100 percent rating on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index. In addition to having an LGBT non-discrimination policy, the law firm offers same-sex partner benefits, transgender health coverage and was among the companies that signed a legal brief before the U.S. Supreme Court against the Defense of Marriage Act.

In a statement from 2011, Seyfarth Shaw Chair J. Stephen Poor touted receiving a perfect score on the HRC report for the fourth consecutive year.

“We are proud to earn this recognition and to have maintained the perfect score for the fourth year in a row, demonstrating that we don’t just ‘talk the talk,’” Poor said at the time. “We know that diversity is important to clients, and it’s equally important to us.”

Michael Cole-Schwartz, a Human Rights Campaign spokesperson, said his organization would dock a hypothetical law firm for representing Exxon Mobil in a case alleging anti-gay bias at the company.

“Yes, we would and have done so in the past,” Cole-Schwartz said. “The firm Foley & Lardner was docked 15 points previously for their work representing organizations trying to stop marriage equality (engagements which have since ended and they are no longer docked), although it should be noted the firm has also had a long history of pro bono support for LGBT causes.”

Starting with the 2012 report, Cole-Schwartz said HRC raised the possible point deduction from -15 to -25. One of the criteria on which companies are judged in the report is “responsible citizenship” or having “no known activity that would undermine LGBT equality.”

Informed by the Washington Blade that Seyfarth Shaw was the law firm defending Exxon Mobil, Cole-Schwartz said the situation is currently under evaluation. HRC has previously praised Freedom to Work’s lawsuit against the company.

“We’re still in the process of collecting data from companies for this year’s CEI ratings and taking a look at the lawsuit and how it might play a role in a score,” Cole-Schwartz said. “We will make a determination once we have all the information.”

Almeida is set to speak on a panel with Jeffrey Wortman, an attorney from the Los Angeles office of Seyfarth Shaw on Friday at the annual Lavender Law Conference, which this year is taking place in San Francisco. The panel is titled, “We Have An Anti-Discrimination Law! Now What?” and will address ways to enforce state non-discrimination laws through the country.

“I’m looking forward to presenting the Exxon case at this weekend’s Lavendar Law panel, and it will be interesting to see if Seyfarth’s representative on the panel will publicly defend Exxon’s anti-gay policies,” Almeida said.

Also of note, one of the attorneys at Seyfarth Shaw, Camille Olson, testified in 2009 before the House and Senate on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. She argued neither for or against the legislation, but said it should be changed for greater clarity, such as in the area of disparate impact on the issue of whether Title VII and ENDA will provide duplicate causes of action. Many changes along the lines of her recommendations were adopted in subsequent versions of the legislation.

Almeida, who’s also among the chief advocates for passage of ENDA, said he remains hopeful Exxon Mobil and Seyfarth Shaw come to embrace LGBT employment non-discrimination polices and advocacy.

“One day when historians write the accounts of ENDA and Exxon, it will be interesting to see whether the lawyers at Seyfarth are considered among the good guys or the bad guys,” Almeida said. “I think that the jury is still out. I hope both Seyfarth and Exxon do the right thing and take the side of basic workplace protections for LGBT Americans.”

UPDATE: This article has been update to include an additional comment from HRC’s Michael Cole-Schwartz.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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