DOWNTOWN — A Santa Monica resident has filed a lawsuit against her former employer claiming the international law firm fired her after she developed a rare sleeping disorder.
Hartwell Harris, 34, alleges in her lawsuit that during the roughly three years she worked as an associate in the Santa Monica office of Bingham McCutchen LLP, a law firm based in Boston with offices throughout the U.S., Europe and Asia, she received positive performance reviews.
That changed when she started having health problems. It started with a bad back that required spinal surgery and physical therapy, forcing her to take time off of work. She was subsequently subjected to mid-year performance reviews that she claims were biased and based on hearsay.
This continued after she was afflicted with Delayed Sleep-Phase Syndrome, or DSPS, in April 2010, according to the complaint.
While Bingham McCutchen initially granted Harris a short-term disability leave, the firm subsequently placed her on unpaid leave and ultimately fired her in February 2011. The lawsuit states that the firm refused her doctor’s proposed accommodations, such as flexible work hours or telecommuting, and did not offer any other options to accommodate her disability.
“I was really disappointed because I had worked really hard to get where I was,” Harris said of being terminated.
A native of a rural town in Mississippi, Harris attended Princeton University and received her law degree from UC Berkeley.
“I was really disappointed for a long time afterward because I did a lot of research to find a place to work where I would stay for my career,” she said.
Harris, who now runs her own law firm in Santa Monica, was specializing in securities litigation when she was terminated.
“Bingham took Ms. Harris’ requests for accommodation seriously and accommodated them reasonably,” according to a statement from the firm. “It’s unfortunate that Ms. Harris selected this course, and we look forward to a favorable resolution of this matter.”
The firm added its Santa Monica office in May 2007 following a merger involving Alschuler Grossman. The Los Angeles Business Journal has named the Santa Monica office to its list of best places to work.
The firm has positioned itself in leading financial centers around the globe, including New York, London, and Tokyo, according to abovethelaw.com, which provides news and gossip about the profession’s most colorful personalities and powerful institutions, as well as original commentary on breaking legal developments.
The firm’s litigation department counts well-known bellwether companies like General Motors, BMW, Nokia, and Bank of America as clients, as well as celebrities such as Larry King and J.K. Rowling, abovethelaw.com reported.
DSPS is a chronic circadian rhythm sleep disorder which disrupts the timing of sleep, peak periods of alertness, the core body temperature, hormonal and other daily rhythms.
Dr. Susan Sprau with the Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center and Orthopaedic Hospital’s Sleep Disorder Center said DSPS is akin to having jet lag where the person affected may feel “hung over.” There are treatments, including drugs to help people stay awake while on the job, but it can be a struggle.
“You have to realize that when you are working against your body’s natural biology, it is an uphill battle and there isn’t a quick or easy or perfect fix,” she said. “People who have this problem tend to take night jobs.”
Sprau said most with DSPS can make adjustments to their schedules to help manage the disorder. She suggests her patients not schedule important meetings or classes early in the morning to give them time to adjust.
Harris is suing Bingham and two of the firm’s partners for employment discrimination and failure to accommodate a disability.