“Surprise!” everyone shouted, as Mary DiNunzio opened the door to the conference room. The office was throwing her a baby shower, and she almost burst into tears of joy. Pregnancy had boosted her emotions past normal Italian-American levels, and for the past seven months, she’d been a walking bowl of estrogen.
“Aww, you guys!” Mary wiped her eyes while they all rushed over.
“Were you surprised?” Judy Carrier, her best friend, gave her a big hug.
“Or did you guess?” Anne Murphy, the firm’s gorgeous fashionista, enveloped Mary in a perfumed cloud.
“DiNunzio, you couldn’t have been surprised, could you?” called out Bennie Rosato, Mary’s partner and former boss. Bennie stood at a distance because group hugs were against her religion, folding her arms in her characteristic khaki suit, unruly blonde topknot, and vaguely ironic smile. “Where did you think we all were?”
“I don’t know!” Mary sniffled happily. “I figured I was the first one in this morning.”
“You? Ha!” Lou Jacobs laughed, giving her a hug. Bald and nearing seventy years old, Lou was a former cop who worked as their investigator. He was trim, fit, and perennially tan from weekends fishing in Margate. His eyes were a flinty gray-blue, with a nose like the bill of a seagull.
“Congrats, Mary!” Marshall Trow, their receptionist, smiled from ear-to-ear.
“Congratulations, Mary!” John Foxman gave her a stiff hug, and Mary hugged him back warmly. She had thought he was too preppie when they first met, but he’d proved his mettle on one of her most important cases.
“You guys went to so much trouble!” Mary took in the scene. Pink and blue streamers hung from the ceiling, obscuring Bennie’s beloved Eakins rowing prints and the view of the Philadelphia skyline. Stacks of trial exhibits had been pushed aside to make room for pink- and blue-frosted cupcakes, a pile of gaily wrapped gifts, and paper plates and cups.
“It was no trouble.” Judy waved her off with a grin.
“We wanted to!” added Anne.
Bennie snorted. “DiNunzio, I agree with you, but they said we had to.” She gestured Mary into a seat at the head of the table, usually hers. “Now sit down and have a cupcake, so we can get back to work.”
“Got it.” Mary waddled to the seat. “Sit down, everyone, please. I can’t take the guilt if you’re standing.”
“Bennie, give us a toast.” Judy sat down, reaching for a pink cupcake and taking a typically big bite.
“Okay.” Bennie raised her I CAN SMELL FEAR mug. “Everybody, join me, get a drink.”
Mary felt her eyes well up again. She loved them, and as thrilled as she was about the baby, she would miss them during her maternity leave. And seeing Bennie standing proudly, her mug raised, made Mary flash on the arc of their long relationship. Mary had joined the law firm as an insecure associate and had grown into a somewhat-less-insecure named partner, which was progress.
“To Mary DiNunzio.” Bennie’s expression softened. “I speak for everyone at Rosato & DiNunzio when I say that we wish you, Anthony, and your new baby all the happiness in the world—but we can’t wait until you come back to work.”
“Hear, hear!” Lou called out, and everybody cheered, raising their cups. “To Mary!” “To the baby!” “To the new lawyer!”
“Thank you!” Mary smiled, taking a sip of seltzer, which would probably make her gassy. These days she could barely walk for having to hold her sphincter closed. At home, she let it rip, and her husband, Anthony, wasn’t allowed to complain. Her breasts had grown to gargantuan proportions, and he had to take the bad with the good.
Suddenly there was a noise outside the conference room, and a man in a sportcoat arrived at the threshold. “Excuse me,” he said, “there was nobody at the reception desk. I have hand-deliveries for Bennie Rosato, Mary DiNunzio, and Judy Carrier.”
“That’s me,” Bennie said, rising and walking around the table.
“I’m Judy.” Judy stood up and went over.
“I’m Mary, but hang on.” Mary got up, slowly.
“Okay, here we go.” The man handed Mary, Judy, and Bennie each a thick manila envelope. “I’m with AMG Process Servers. You’ve been served.”
Bennie blinked. “You mean a client of ours has been served.”
“No. You’ve been served. Bye.” The man left, with a surprised Marshall escorting him out.
“What?” Mary asked, aghast. She’d never been sued in her life. She’d never even colored outside of the lines.
“Let me see.” Bennie had torn open the envelope and was already reading the papers with a deepening frown. “It’s a copy of a Complaint that was just filed with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. We’re being sued as a firm and individually, as partners.”
“Who could be suing you guys?” Anne rose quickly, crossing to read the papers.
Lou snorted, getting up. “Who would be crazy enough?”
“And for what?” John asked, indignant, crossing the room to read over Bennie’s shoulder.
Bennie read through the papers. “We’re being sued for reverse sex discrimination.”
Mary read over Bennie’s shoulder, aghast. “The plaintiffs are three male lawyers who allege they applied for jobs and weren’t hired because they’re men.”
“Are you serious?” Judy recoiled. “We’re being sued?”
Lou asked, “What’s the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission?”
Bennie kept reading the Complaint. “It’s an agency that enforces state law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender and for other reasons. The federal analogue is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.”
Judy looked over at Lou. “The Pennsylvania Human Relations Act covers smaller employers like us. This is the beginning of a lawsuit, because you have to file a complaint with the Commission before you can go to court.”
“Here, I’ll read the allegations.” Bennie cleared her throat. “The law firm of Rosato & DiNunzio was unlawfully founded as a ‘women-only’ law firm. On many occasions, its principals Bennie Rosato, Mary DiNunzio, and Judy Carrier have even admitted as much, stating in interviews that their law firm is ‘comprised of all women’ and is ‘all-female.’”
Mary felt a wave of nausea, only partly pregnancy-related. “We said that because reporters would ask us if we were all-female. That doesn’t mean it’s a job requirement.”
“Who are these plaintiffs?” Judy’s fair skin flushed with emotion, turning almost as pink as her hair. “When did we fail to hire them? Besides, we’re not an all-female law firm anymore. We have John now. Doesn’t he count?”
“Yeah, right.” Anne gestured to John. “You hired him yourself, right, Judy?”
“Yes, totally.” Judy nodded, emphatic. “Bennie, that disproves their case right there, doesn’t it?”
“No, it doesn’t.” Bennie looked over, frowning. “Point of law, the fact that a company hired a man doesn’t prove that it didn’t discriminate against another male plaintiff. Secondly, the fact that we don’t interview more widely doesn’t cut in our favor. Failing to interview widely tends to perpetuate discriminatory employment practices. In an all-male firm, it would perpetuate an old-boy network.”
“Like an old-girl network?” Mary felt defensive. “Gimme a break. We don’t discriminate against men. This suit doesn’t have any merit. These guys have a lot of nerve.”
“Because they’re men,” Judy shot back, but nobody laughed. “Okay, not allowed to joke around anymore. Bennie, who are the plaintiffs?”
“Their names are Michael Battle, Graham Madden, and Stephen McManus, corporate litigators. They allege they were ‘more than qualified’ to be associates. They applied and were rejected. It says we interviewed one, McManus.” Bennie looked up, puzzled. “Who interviewed McManus?”
“I did,” John answered. “I thought we needed an associate to help on London Technologies. I asked Anne if I could hire somebody. Remember, Anne?”
“Yes.” Anne nodded, frowning. “You were supposed to interview the candidates, make a recommendation to me, and I’d run it up to Bennie.”
“Okay, so I put an ad online and in the Intelligencer, went through the resumes, and interviewed a bunch of candidates, including one of these three, the plaintiffs.” John looked nonplussed, turning to Bennie. “I liked Steve McManus and recommended to Anne that we hire him. She said no and told me to go back to the drawing board. Instead I hired a contract lawyer because I didn’t have time to start the whole process over again.”
Bennie faced Anne. “Why didn’t you want to hire McManus? Did you interview him?”
“No.” Anne thought for a minute, a worried crease marking her perfect features. “I looked at the resume and didn’t like it. He didn’t seem to have any personality. I didn’t think he would be a good fit.”
Bennie arched an eyebrow. “What do you mean by ‘good fit’?”
“He seemed really boring, like, too quiet. None of us is, and that’s why this is a fun place to work. He didn’t strike me as the kind of person we need, completely regardless of his gender.” Anne straightened. “I can totally defend my decision. Under the law, we can decide not to hire someone for any reason, or even no reason, as long as it’s not discriminatory.”
“Correct.” Bennie returned her attention to the Complaint. “Foxman, you’re mentioned here, too.”
“I am?” John swallowed hard, and Mary noticed he suddenly seemed nervous, which was unusual because not much ruffled his patrician cool. He was good-looking, with intelligent blue eyes behind rimless glasses, a small nose, and precisely layered reddish hair. Tall and perennially well-dressed, he always looked to Mary as if he’d been born in a rep tie. But she could see his mouth go suddenly dry.
Bennie cleared her throat again. “Let me read aloud. ‘Plaintiff Stephen McManus was interviewed by associate John Foxman in his office at Rosato & DiNunzio. During the interview, Foxman told Plaintiff McManus that he himself felt ‘out of place at Rosato & DiNunzio because he was a male.’” Bennie looked up slowly, appalled. “Did you say that, Foxman?”
Mary sensed the answer. John tended to make his opinions known, and she remembered that on the last case they had worked together, he had spoken imprudently to the media. In other circumstances she would have termed it mansplaining, but not today.
“Whoa.” Judy grimaced at John. “Did you really say that?”
“John, do you really think that?” Anne’s lovely green eyes focused on him, awaiting his answer, as was Lou.
“Um.” John swallowed visibly, his Adam’s apple getting stuck on his cutaway collar. “I said that.”
Mary moaned inwardly, and everyone fell silent. A pink streamer fluttered from the ceiling to the carpet.
“Foxman.” Bennie controlled her tone. “You said that to an interviewee? Explain.”
John went ashen-faced. “I’m the only male lawyer. If we’re being honest, I do feel that way, sometimes.”
“Like when?” Judy and Anne interrupted, in outraged unison.
John gestured vaguely at the streamers. “For starters, at a baby shower.”
Judy threw up her hands. “John, I feel out of place at a baby shower.”
“But I do feel out of place here, at times.”
“John, really?” Judy blurted out. “You’re not out of place here. You’re one of us, whether you’re a man or woman. You know that.”
“Bummer.” Anne was shaking her head, her glossy red hair shining. “You never said anything like that to me.”
Mary could see that John felt terrible, but now they were on the legal hook. Litigation was a nightmare, especially when you were on the receiving end, and it was the last thing she needed in a difficult pregnancy. She tried not to throw up.
Bennie raised a hand. “Foxman, I asked you to explain the circumstances in which you made this statement to an interviewee.”
John stiffened. “Well, during the interview, I guess McManus and I got to talking. He was a nice guy. I felt we had a rapport. That’s why I wanted to hire him. I might’ve admitted that I felt out of place here, sometimes. As a guy.”
Bennie squared her shoulders. “Foxman, I’m disappointed. If you’d brought it to me, we could have addressed it. Instead you chose to make your views known to an outsider, who’s using it against us in a baseless lawsuit.”
John swallowed, mortified. “It was a mistake.”
“No, it was treason.”
John flinched. “Bennie, I’m sorry. Do you want me to resign? I don’t want to, but I will if you want me to.”
“And add fuel to the plaintiffs’ fire? No.” Bennie glared at him, creating the most awkward moment in legal history. “Where do you think those resumes would be? Or a copy of the ad that we ran? Do you have them?”
“Find their resumes and any other communications you had with them—email, text, phone calls, whatever. Prepare a chronology so we understand exactly what happened. We have to know what they know.” Bennie glanced at Anne. “Murphy, I’m tasking you with preventing this from happening again. We have to institute a formalized way of dealing with interviewees from now on. We can’t do it by the seat of our pants anymore. Please coordinate with Marshall, set up a system, and let us know your recommendation. We need to implement it immediately.”
“Will do,” Anne said quickly.
Judy turned to Bennie. “Who represents the plaintiffs?”
“Hold on, let me see.” Bennie flipped through the Complaint, then looked up. “Guess who, DiNunzio.”
“Tell me.” Mary hated guessing games from before she was on progesterone, which left her feeling dumber than usual.
“It’s your mortal enemy.”
“I don’t have any enemies.”
Judy smiled. “Truth. She’s universally beloved.”
Bennie met Mary’s troubled gaze. “You beat him last time, and he’s back with a vengeance. Nick Machiavelli.”
“Oh no.” Mary’s heart sank. Unfortunately, her gorge rose. The real Niccolò Machiavelli had thought it was better to be feared than loved, and his alleged descendant, South Philly lawyer Nick Machiavelli, followed suit. He was feared, not loved, while Mary was loved, not feared. She knew Machiavelli would come back for an ultimate lawyer battle, like a fight between good and evil, with billable hours.
Bennie closed the Complaint. “Folks, the party’s over. Sorry, Mary. Open your presents later. We have to talk about this lawsuit, and everybody has to clear the room except for the three partners.”
“I need a wastebasket,” Mary said, looking around.
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