Lawyer files human rights complaint against firm for alleged ‘mishandling’ of racial discrimination

Alberta lawyer alleges discrimination against her former firm

Lawyer files human rights complaint against firm for alleged ‘mishandling’ of racial discrimination
Kathryn Marshall and Sophie Purnell

A Calgary employment lawyer is taking her former law firm to the Alberta Human Rights Commission, accusing the firm of race- and gender-based discrimination and seeking unpaid wages and other compensation.

Sophie Purnell was an associate at Taylor Janis Workplace Law before the firm terminated her in November 2022. After a racially discriminatory incident, Purnell said the firm’s leadership failed to take any steps to “ensure a safe and racism-free workplace,” blamed her for the episode, and failed to protect her from a “targeted campaign of harassment and bullying.”

In his conduct towards her in response to her raising the incident, Purnell also claims that she was subject to gender-based discrimination by managing partner Conan Taylor. This consisted of demeaning comments and allegedly included Taylor reciting Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “There was a little girl” during a meeting to compare her with the “bad little girl” from the poem.

The allegations have not been proven in court.

“Her objective is to have there be changes in the legal industry and to expose law firms which are engaging in really bad conduct – and there are many,” says Kathryn Marshall, Purnell’s lawyer. “It’s sort of an open secret in law that law can be a very toxic work environment.”

Canadian Lawyer contacted Conan Taylor for comment, but he did not respond.

The dispute primarily originated from a conversation between Purnell and three of the firm’s legal assistants in the office's lunchroom. After one of the staff members asked another if she “likes her coffee like she likes her men,” Purnell said she entered the room while the other responded that she had never dated a Black man. The third, who was Purnell’s assistant, then said repeatedly that she did not find Black men attractive. They then asked Purnell, who is Black, whether she was attracted to Black men given that her husband is white.

Purnell said she later sent a text message to the three colleagues saying that she knew their comments “didn’t come from a malicious place” and that they were entitled to have racial dating preferences but that “voicing them out loud in a casual manner in front of a Black colleague was really hurtful and not okay.” Purnell asked that they be “more sensitive and mindful” and “exercise discretion” when discussing such sensitive subjects in the workplace.

According to the Human Rights Commission complaint, Purnell’s colleagues then complained to Taylor about her handling of the situation, saying they no longer “felt safe” around her. Purnell’s assistant told her she would no longer discuss anything with her outside of work-related matters. The incident remained an issue between all four of them, and Purnell said she felt “singled out and ostracized” by their hostility.

Taylor requested Purnell attend two meetings – one with the partnership, the other with the three staff members – to discuss the issue. Purnell asked that a “support person” attend with her and that a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) consultant or an equity ombudsperson from the law society be involved, but Taylor denied the requests, she said.

According to the complaint, in a subsequent phone call, Taylor said an outside consultant would be too expensive and that the firm would not institute a DEI policy because such policies create a “fear environment.” Purnell said she suggested to Taylor that her support person be another Black female lawyer at the firm, who has since resigned, but he said he would “rather not” consult her on the incident.

During the meeting with two other partners at the firm, Purnell said Taylor told her she “lacked insight,” that the incident was not related to race but with the staff members finding her a challenge to work with because of practice-management issues and her growing, busy practice.

Taylor told her the staff members found her “bossy” and “stern,” she said, and when she asked for examples, he “expressed frustration” and said he had “a little joke about [her] in his head.” She said this was when he paraphrased the poem, saying: “There was a little girl with a great big curl in the middle of her forehead. When she was good, she was very, very good. And when she was bad, she was naughty.” The complaint states that Purnell found these comments “incredibly patronizing and disrespectful” and that he was “intentionally demeaning her based on gender, by comparing her to the ‘bad little girl.’”

The firm terminated Purnell a little under two months later.

Purnell’s complaint also involves her promotion to managing lawyer and non-equity partner, which occurred before the incident.

In January 2021, following the departure of two senior partners, the firm asked her to take the position and that “her compensation would be adjusted in order to be commensurate with the new position and duties,” said the complaint. While she took on the managerial role, despite repeated requests and a promise that she would be compensated retroactively to the date of her promotion, Purnell said she was never paid for the extra work. She was also paid on a “commission fee structure,” and the new duties significantly ate away at her billing time.

“Sometimes, the only or most effective way to address the existence of systemic biases, racism, and other forms of discrimination in the legal profession is to take legal action,” Purnell told Canadian Lawyer. “This is especially the case when the individual(s) creating or enabling the discrimination are in leadership positions.”

To create and maintain an inclusive and healthy culture, leadership must be “genuinely and actively onboard,” she says, noting that the firm’s mishandling of the initial racial comments is what “fuelled and enabled the ostracization, harassment, and mistreatment.”

Purnell is seeking a declaration that Taylor Janis’ conduct constitution discrimination based on race, colour, ancestry, place of origin, and gender; $75,000 in damages for pain and suffering; compensation for loss of wages from the termination date to the date of the tribunal’s decision, and reimbursement for medical expenses incurred due to the traumatic impact of the discriminatory conduct.

Purnell has also made a complaint under Alberta’s Employment Standards Code for unpaid wages, reimbursement of unauthorized deductions, unpaid vacation, unpaid holiday pay, and outstanding wages from the termination notice period. These amount to a total payment of $37,989.

On July 6, the commission sent notice that it had accepted the complaint and had requested a response from Taylor Janis.

“The fear of being blacklisted and retaliated against often prevents lawyers from taking legal action against their former employers,” says Purnell. “It’s ironic that as lawyers, we are entrusted to advocate for our clients but have created environments that make it nearly impossible for employees within law firms to advocate for positive change with respect to entrenched organizational problems without fear of retaliation or being fired.”

“I am mindful of the fact that taking legal action against a law firm goes against the unwritten rules in our profession,” she says. “However, our profession is not better off when we are silent about the pattern of injustices that we see in our workplaces. I hope that by sharing my personal experience… that other lawyers experiencing harassment and discrimination may know that they are not alone and that by demanding some form of accountability through the justice system, we can create workplace environments that promote the wellness of racialized lawyers and other marginalized groups in the legal profession.”

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