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August 28, 2019

Fired paralegal sues Center City law firm, citing a drug-fueled 'party culture' and pervasive sexual harassment

Veronica Fortunato claims she scheduled a meeting in October 2018 to complain about treatment, but was terminated on the spot

Lawsuits Sexual Harassment
Veronica Fortunato Photo courtesy/Veronica Fortunato

Veronica Fortunato claims she was fired from her job as a paralegal at a Center City law firm in October 2018 because she complained about ongoing instances of sexual harassment and bullying in a 'malignant work environment.' She and her attorney have filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

A paralegal who claims she was fired for complaining about sexual harassment and bullying has filed a federal lawsuit against the prominent Center City law firm where she used to work.

Veronica Fortunato, 25, is suing Zarwin, Baum, DeVito, Kaplan, Shaer, Toddy P.C. along with an attorney there and the office manager. The suit was filed last week in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

In the filing – which paints a salacious picture of a law firm that fosters a “party culture” rife with drug use and sexual harassment – Fortunato seeks damages for of sex discrimination, a hostile work environment, retaliation, a violation of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, Pennsylvania Whistleblower Retaliation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, assault and battery, and civil conspiracy.

“Zarwin Baum fostered and promoted a severe, pervasive, malignant, sexually discriminatory and hostile work environment and party culture in the workplace,” reads the suit which was filed by attorney J. Conor Corcoran. 

He continued that Fortunato "has suffered damages including but not limited to past and/or future lost wages, pain and suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish, loss of enjoyment of life, humiliation, emotional distress, reputational harm, diminishment of career opportunities, and other harm both tangible and intangible."

When Fortunato shared her story exclusively with PhillyVoice in March, she spoke of “a malignant atmosphere” where she was subject to sexual suggestions from male attorneys and scorn from female employees who would comment about her “being too skinny, too tall for high heels or being a ‘slut’ because I received flowers at the office.”

She scheduled a meeting in October 2018 "to complain about the general hostile work environment at Zarwin Baum and the specific behavior of Jay Leffler Esq.," she said, but was fired before she could say anything.

At the time of that interview, she had filed complaints with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Philadelphia Commission on Human RelationsIn early June, the EEOC issued its “right to sue” letter to Fortunato, prompting the suit’s filing on Aug. 23.

It echoes many of the assertions Fortunato made during an interview with PhillyVoice, but goes into substantially more detail about the alleged work climate at Zarwin Baum, which is located at 1818 Market St. in Center City.

Among the allegations contained in the suit are:

• The firm organized Happy Hours “which female employees … were often expected to attend and were heavily encouraged to engage in binge drinking, despite the obviously degrading and unlawful characteristics of such a party culture in a law firm workplace."

• An attorney there asked Fortunato “if she could pass a drug test, which he immediately followed with ‘Just kidding. If you could pass a drug test, then this place wouldn’t be for you.’”

• Employees would “participate in the drinking confessional game called ‘Marry, F***, Kill’ in which employees were to confess who amongst their colleagues they would like to ‘marry, f*** or kill.’”

• Hotel rooms were rented for the firm’s Christmas party “for employees who wanted to consume excessive amounts of alcohol and/or have sex with other employees … including one infamous party where a senior partner was seen leaving a hotel room with someone other than his spouse, the police were called because attorneys were doing cocaine in the parking lot, and a female employee was swimming naked in the hotel pool, which a senior partner took as presumptuous license to subsequently begin sending sexually harassing emails to that female employee.”

• The firm “implicitly and/or explicitly permitted the sale and/or consumption of marijuana and/or alcohol and/or other intoxicants to take place amongst its employees and within the confines of the office and/or in the office’s immediately adjacent facilities, such as the parking lot.”

• An attorney told mail-room employees that “he ‘did good’ by hiring ‘a hot girl’ like (Fortunato)."

• “It was common knowledge” that complaints about a hostile work environment or party culture would be “buried.”

• Leffler, the attorney named in the suit, allegedly grabbed Fortunato’s hand in an elevator “and forced her to rub the crown of his head.” He would also “persistently comment about (her) scent, unnecessarily walk by her desk and stare at her, and comment on (her) figure and taste in clothing.”

The suit seeks an award “in excess of $150,000” for each of the eight counts.

Though Zarwin Baum did not respond to requests for comment for this story, spokesman Theodore Schaer in March told PhillyVoice that Fortunato’s termination had nothing to do with her claims and that “we intend to vigorously defend these baseless allegations."

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