Photo provided by the firm.
Douglas Wigdor of Wigdor LLP has been battling employment discrimination and sexual assault through civil legal action since starting his own firm 15 years ago, and he has stayed on the front lines with the new wave of litigation spurred by the #MeToo movement. Wigdor recently reached a $10 million settlement for plaintiffs alleging gender and race discrimination at Fox News, and he has brought discrimination suits against Wall Street and Silicon Valley firms. Wigdor also is representing female passengers in claims against Uber over alleged assaults by drivers.
The one-time defense-side litigator at Morgan Lewis is engaged in other high-profile litigation. Of particular interest to New York sports fans, Wigdor represents former Knicks player Charles Oakley in a lawsuit against team owner James Dolan and The Madison Square Garden Company. Oakley claims that he was improperly removed from a February 2017 game and later defamed in the resulting coverage. Wigdor founded the firm with Ken Thompson, who later became the first African-American district attorney in Brooklyn. Thompson died from cancer in 2016 at the age of 50.
Lawdragon: Most people did not see the #MeToo movement coming. However, you have been dealing with these issues for a long time, including handling the high-profile claims against Dominique Strauss-Kahn. (The maid who alleged the then-head of the International Monetary Fund assaulted her at a New York hotel in 2011 later settled her case.) Did you anticipate anything like what has happened in terms of ongoing attention to and societal acknowledgement of harassment and assault issues?
Douglas Wigdor: Our firm has been litigating issues on behalf of clients who were sexually harassed or assaulted since its inception over fifteen years ago. Representing the maid in the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case was eye-opening for me as I was genuinely surprised that in 2011 a sexual assault victim could be treated so poorly by the people who were duty bound to protect her. A lot has changed since 2011, thankfully, and while I can’t take credit for the exact timing of the #MeToo movement, I would like to think that the numerous cases that we have handled in this area, many of which have been very public, contributed to this watershed moment.
LD: Do you have a sense of where it’s going – is this a new permanent reality or do you expect any swinging back of the pendulum?
DW: I believe that victims of sexual harassment and assault will always, unfortunately, be attacked and vilified by the predators that attacked them and their attorneys. That is why it is so important for victims to have a powerful and resourceful attorney protecting their interests. Since the #MeToo movement, we have had much stronger support in the court of public opinion with our cases, but I do expect the pendulum to swing back somewhat as defense lawyers claim that they are being denied a fair trial or due process. As a lawyer who represents victims, all I can ask for is fundamental fairness. I believe that the #MeToo movement has leveled the playing field and has taken the stigma out of coming forward as a legitimate victim.
LD: With the recently settled Fox suits, in addition to the monetary settlement, can you speak generally about what your clients wanted – acknowledgement? Reform?
DW: Like most of our clients, it is not just about money. While money is an important remedy in any civil case, most of our clients come forward to effectuate some sort of change. That often happens through changes at the company including the termination of senior level executives, employees and others responsible for unlawful activity. It also happens through acknowledging wrongdoing, changing policies, and conducting new training to make sure harassment and discrimination do not happen in the future.
LD: Plaintiffs in the Fox settlements will remain free to discuss their experiences. Have you rethought the use of non-disclosure agreements as a result of the attention brought to them over the past year?
DW: Non-disclosure agreements are good for some of our clients and not for others. It is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Some of our clients settle cases before we file and their anonymity is very important. In those situations, mutual confidentiality is often the result. There are other times, however, where our client wants to be able to discuss the facts of what happened and in those cases we make sure that is possible through negotiating the terms of the agreement to our clients’ satisfaction.
LD: Do you have confidence that Fox has become or is becoming a different place now for employees?
DW: Time will tell whether Fox has really changed. A number of senior level employees have been fired and others replaced, which is a good thing. Fox has also instituted new policies and safeguards to hopefully protect hardworking and dedicated employees. But I think it is too early to tell what the future will hold for Fox.
LD: In what other industries or sectors are you bringing more claims as a result of harassment, discrimination or retaliation? How prevalent are these issues on Wall Street in terms of what you are seeing with current or prospective clients?
DW: We are seeing a lot of claims for sexual harassment, pregnancy discrimination, and equal pay in numerous sectors including private equity firms, hedge funds, law firms, and banks. We have seen women routinely paid less than men for equal work, women given less opportunities, and women who have been marginalized when they notify their employer that they are pregnant and/or when they return from maternity leave.
LD: What about Silicon Valley? Are you targeting problems that have been identified with the male-dominated culture there?
DW: We have absolutely targeted Silicon Valley and have many harassment and discrimination cases on the West Coast. Start-ups often regard human resources as an afterthought which presents numerous issues going forward.
LD: Please talk about the claims against Uber for assaults on customers. Can you describe to our readers what the current status is of the proposed class action?
DW: We originally represented the rape victim in Delhi, India, in her claims against Uber in San Francisco, and since then we have continued to represent many women who have been sexually assaulted and/or raped by Uber drivers. We currently have a putative class action filed in San Francisco on behalf of the victims and are in the beginning stages of that case. We were instrumental in getting Uber to change its policy regarding forced arbitration but unfortunately Uber is still contesting some of the aspects of our class action. Which is a shame really, as we believe it is important for all of the victims to be heard together as a group – that is what they want as there is power and confidence in numbers.
LD: As you said, Uber has ended forced arbitration for individual claims, but not for class actions. What is the benefit of going forward with a class action instead of individual claims?
DW: Class actions are very important because it gives you a louder voice and makes it more difficult for the company to attack you personally. When one person comes forward, a company can attack you – but when you have 20 or 30 women with similar stories, it makes it almost impossible for the company to “blame” all of the victims. Therefore, class actions empower victims by giving them a bigger platform and the ability to effectuate real change.
LD: Aside from damages, what is the reform or remedy here that would help prevent these crimes from happening?
DW: For starters, we are hoping that Uber changes its background checks by requiring fingerprinting of all Uber drivers. We are also hoping that Uber interviews and checks references for drivers, installs panic buttons and video cameras in every car, and allows women to request women drivers.
LD: With the Charles Oakley case: Can you describe what you think is the importance of this new evidence you have of video footage?
DW: While we do not believe the Judge should review the footage in connection with the motion to dismiss, ultimately when the jury sees the video, they will see what I believe to be Dolan calling for security to kick Charles out of Madison Square Garden – and for no reason. That is what caused this debacle and my hope is that the jury sees it for what it is and holds Dolan responsible.
LD: What ultimately does your client want?
DW: Charles wants to hold Dolan responsible for what he did. It was really embarrassing for Charles to come back to Madison Square Garden and be treated this way. He deserves better and the Knicks fans know that!
LD: Can you discuss how you and your former partner Ken Thompson came up with the idea to start your own firm
DW: My former partner Ken Thompson, who went on to become the first Black District Attorney of Brooklyn, and I came up with the idea of starting a firm while we were associates at Morgan Lewis – a large firm that represented employers. We both wanted to start a firm that could help individuals and go up against the biggest and most powerful companies and people that were treating others unlawfully. We were motivated in building a successful firm that could compete with large law firms and people with unlimited resources, and I believe that we successfully accomplished that goal in short order through our hard work and trial experience. While not every case goes to trial, I feel that we have the most seasoned trial lawyers who have actual trial experience, and that leads to cases settling because many big firm partners have never actually tried a case to verdict.
LD: Do you have a lasting memory of him that you carry with you or think about regularly?
DW: My lasting memories of Ken are twofold. The first was doing a jury trial with him. We both had different styles but complimented each other well. Preparing and doing jury trials with Ken is something I will never forget. On the flip side, I will also never forget the time we just spent talking about life and sharing different stories about our backgrounds – we were law partners, but we were also great friends.
LD: Your firm must have more work that it can handle. How quickly are you growing now and what do you envision for firm size?
DW: We do get a lot of calls and people contacting us to represent them – and we return each call within 24 hours. We would love to help everyone, but unfortunately that is not our business model. We are extremely selective in the cases we handle. As a result, we are not looking to grow the size of the Firm significantly beyond our current size. We are considering, however, opening an office in another city to help better serve our clients and provide our services to others in different areas. We should have more on that hopefully in 2019.
LD: Your support of Donald Trump has drawn some attention. Have you felt any conflict between that support and your role as a champion of women in civil cases?
DW: Our clients seek our counsel because of our unparalleled ability to litigate and try discrimination and sexual harassment cases. Our political views and support of various candidates of all backgrounds and parties is not a reflection on our abilities as trial lawyers but are personal decisions that our clients realize are not relevant to our zeal in obtaining the best possible outcome in their matter.
LD: What does the firm do to promote diversity in its own ranks?
DW: Our firm was founded by a black partner and a Jewish partner who realized that diversity is important as it brings different skill sets and ideas to the table while also reflecting the diversity of the great city of New York. We are always looking to increase our diversity through hiring lawyers and other support staff. I am personally very active in several different diverse community programs in which I make efforts to do so. Diversity also means attracting more women, and we have made a concentrated effort in that regard and intend to do even better going forward.
Lawdragon's earlier Q&A profile of Douglas Widgor can be found here.
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