A team of Kirkland & Ellis LLP associates guided a pro bono discrimination case against the U.S. Department of State to its successful jury verdict in Washington, D.C., federal court earlier this month.
Supervised by litigation partner Winn Allen, a group of four Kirkland associates led by Mary Miller steered the case to a win on April 5 after four years.
"We're always looking for opportunities to get our associates into court and get them real trial experience, and this one seemed like a great opportunity to give folks as much responsibility as they could handle," Allen told Law360.
A jury ruled largely in favor of Kirkland's client, Dr. Tiemoko Coulibaly, who alleged claims against the State Department in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Family Medical Leave Act.
Coulibaly claimed he experienced discriminatory behavior while serving as a federal civil servant and French foreign language instructor at the State Department's Foreign Service Institute. He had been with the department for 13 years.
Coulibaly, who is a Black man originally from the Ivory Coast, alleged that his supervisors and other agents at the department discriminated against him on account of his race and national origin, resulting in a hostile work environment, disparate treatment, adverse employment actions and untimely termination. He further alleged that agents continued to harass him during medical leave related to the unfair treatment, and later denied his 12 weeks of guaranteed leave by terminating him.
Coulibaly filed his complaint as a pro se litigant in the district court for the District of Columbia in 2014. After the judge denied a summary judgment request by the government, the court asked Allen in 2017 whether he would take the case pro bono.
"When this case came in, we saw it as an opportunity to give our associates a real opportunity to develop a case from day one, in terms of shepherding the case through discovery, working up experts, doing the briefing and preparing for trial," Allen said.
Miller, who joined the firm in 2017, worked alongside litigation associates Elizabeth Hedges, Neil Joseph, and Caroline Darmody.
Miller went into leading the case without previous experience in jury trials, but throughout the process, she was preparing to go the distance, aided by Allen and the firm leadership, she said.
"It was super helpful to have been provided guidance and strategic advice as we moved towards the trial phase and obviously the support of the firm more broadly as we were getting everything ready to go," Miller said. "Just to have that support and be able to talk through all of the issues or potential issues that might come up in trial, that was really important to me and helpful to me as we went through the process."
Miller briefly left the firm after two years for a clerkship in the D.C. court but returned a few months before the trial and just as the case picked up more steam. Along with her time handling discovery and depositions in the matter, her clerkship experience made her a natural fit as lead on the case, according to Allen.
The State Department argued that Coulibaly was justifiably let go from his position, deriving from friction between him and his first-line supervisor, Dr. Laura Fyfe, that began in 2011, according to a joint pretrial statement. The department alleged that, after Coulibaly failed to properly prepare a lesson plan for his classes, the two had an in-person meeting where Fyfe asked Coulibaly whether he had something against her because her former husband was also from the Ivory Coast.
Following the meeting, Coulibaly filed an equal employment opportunity complaint and further accused Fyfe and management of racial discrimination and retaliation. Subsequently, he took medical leave. In March 2012, he allegedly requested sick leave for the following day, but as he had not accrued enough hours of leave, his request was denied. He nevertheless took the day off. He was terminated soon afterward. The State Department claimed his conduct had caused significant disruption and justified his firing.
Beyond knocking down a second summary judgment motion filed in 2019, one of the challenges that arose during the trial was handling the emotions of the case.
"This was a pretty emotional thing for our client," Allen said. "I thought our team did a very professional, very nice job at being respectful of those emotions, while still putting on the best trial presentation."
The jury ultimately ruled that Coulibaly established that the State Department subjected him to disparate treatment, retaliated against him and subjected him to a hostile work environment, awarding him damages of $500,000.
The jury further found that Coulibaly proved the State Department interfered with his right to take leave but that he did not prove the department retaliated against him based on his participation in activity protected under the Family and Medical Leave Act.
Counsel for the State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Coulibaly was represented by Kenneth Winn Allen, Mary Elizabeth Miller, Elizabeth Hedges, Neil Joseph, and Caroline Darmody of Kirkland & Ellis LLP.
The government was represented by Paul Cirino and Benton Gregory Peterson of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia.
The case is Coulibaly v. Kerry et al, case number 1:14-cv-00712, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.