Updated on May 1, 2012, at 12:25 PM.
A lawsuit filed in April against Patton Boggs, Washington’s biggest lobbying firm, depicts the culture in its DC office like something out of Mad Men—only this isn’t TV, and the allegations in the complaint are extremely serious.
Kristine Colombo, who worked as a business development coordinator at the firm from 2007 until September 2011, says an employee in the firm's IT department sexually harassed her, and attempted to choke her during a happy hour held in Patton Boggs's West End offices. After she reported the attack, Colombo alleges that human resources personnel began telling her coworkers were complaining about her. Colombo says she was denied a merit salary increase despite an outstanding performance review, and was falsely accused of drinking during work hours, put on probation, and ultimately fired--all in retaliation for reporting the harassment.
According to the complaint, filed in DC Superior Court against both Patton Boggs and the individual IT employee, "socialization with alcohol was part of the firm's culture, and was an activity in which the entire firm frequently took part." Colombo's lawyer, Carla Brown, a name partner at Charlson Bredehoft Cohen Brown & Sakata, says if it weren't for the intermingling of alcohol and the work environment, the alleged attack on her client likely never would've happened.
The complaint says that on the third Thursday of every month, Patton Boggs hosted a happy hour for employees, known as "Third Thursdays." At one such celebration last year, the festivities started at 4:30 and included cocktails and sushi, according to the complaint. While at the event, Colombo contends she was confronted by the IT employee outside the restrooms, where, in a slurred voice, he threatened her children. When Colombo returned to the party, she alleges the man followed her, grabbed her neck from behind, and started to choke her. Colombo alleges the IT employee told her she was resisting his advances because she was "frigid," and asked her if she had "been raped before." Colombo asked another male colleague to escort her to her car so she could leave.
In addition to the other mistreatment Colombo says she endured after reporting the attack to human resources, she alleges that Patton Boggs's chief operating officer told her to "just forget about" the incident. According to the complaint, the COO also "recognized and admitted that the firm has a culture where drinking alcohol frequently occurs, and is accepted behavior, among all employees, including partners and other management." Colombo was fired in September.
"She really liked that job," says Brown. "She's definitely heartbroken."
Colombo's lawsuit states claims of a hostile work environment, assault, battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress against Patton Boggs. She's asking for $12 million in damages, plus reimbursement for lost pay and benefits and legal fees.
Patton Boggs's spokesman Elliott Frieder did not return multiple requests for comment on the lawsuit, including specific questions about the characterization of the firm as a place where employees frequently socialize with alcohol. We will update this post if and when the firm responds.
It's relatively rare for a lawsuit such as this one to enter litigation, since most are resolved before they end up in court.
Brown says now that her client has entered litigation, she doesn't foresee a quick resolution.
Patton Boggs has responded to our story with the following statement:
"Patton Boggs terminated Ms. Colombo's employment in response to troubling complaints about her workplace conduct by other employees. The firm thoroughly investigated those complaints and documented its investigation. Before this lawsuit was filed, we voluntarily shared those documents with Ms. Colombo's attorney and permitted her attorney to question the two human resource professionals who conducted that investigation. It is a shame that Ms. Colombo and her counsel chose to ignore the evidence and file this case. We are confident that we will prevail in Court and are fully prepared to defend our actions."