It had been 18 years since Donna Kassman had looked for a job, and the search wasn’t going well for the veteran attorney. Eventually she would abandon her search and start her own business in her Bedford home.
Kassman is a University of Michigan graduate who also has a law degree from Hofstra University. For nearly two decades she worked at a Big Four auditing firm in the tax and advisory division, and before that was a clerk for a Long Island judge.
Shadowing her, however, is her departure from her former employer, KPMG LLP, and a subsequent lawsuit that has become a nearly four-year legal battle with the firm.
Kassman filed a lawsuit in 2011 accusing KPMG of gender wage discrimination. Since that initial complaint, the case has grown into a collective and class-action lawsuit with three other plaintiffs and a collective of nearly 1,300 former and current female employees of KPMG.
Donna Kassman at her Bedford home. Photo by Colleen Wilson
The women allege they were paid less than their male counterparts and are seeking $400 million in damages.
Kassman began her career as a clerk for a Nassau County Supreme Court judge in her native Long Island right out of law school. When the judge retired, she decided to follow in her older sister’s footsteps and applied to a Big Four accounting firm.
She was hired by KPMG in 1993 as an attorney in the New York City office for the firm’s nonprofit group specializing in health care. Eventually she moved into the state and local tax group that later merged with the firm’s international tax practice, and that is where Kassman said she made her “home.”
Kassman considered herself the ideal working woman, someone who wanted to rise in the ranks.
And from 1993 to 2003 she did just that, following the traditional route from associate to senior associate to manager and then to senior manager. The next step after that, she said, would be tax managing director or partner.
“There was no part of me that said I was not going to be a partner at KPMG someday,” she said.
But Kassman never got to partner. Instead, After 10 years with the company her salary was cut $20,000, she said.
Kassman’s first child was born in June 2003. At her salary review that September, her bosses told her they had decided to dock her pay because, according to Kassman’s original court complaint, she was paid “too much.”
In March 2004, soon after returning from maternity leave, Kassman’s boss, the partner she reported to, gave her a negative performance review that she said was baseless, according to the complaint.
Shortly after that, Kassman said, “I got what was called a performance improvement plan slapped on me,” a 60-day trial to increase and meet performance goals. “And I say it like that because there was never any discussion, never any warning, never any feedback that would lead me to believe my performance was anything less than satisfactory.”
Kassman said she had also decided to go part time when she returned from maternity leave, which she said was her strategy to survive at the company. “How do I go under the radar and give them all of me but make me a bargain basement, the best senior manager ever at the lowest cost that they would never consider losing me,” she said.
On a reduced schedule and for less pay as senior manager, Kassman said, she continued working as if she were full time and completed the same responsibilities.
According to court documents, in a 2008 nomination form for a Leadership Evaluation and Assistance Program that could lead to becoming partner or managing director, Kassman’s supervisors wrote, “Although she works a reduced hourly schedule, she has the same responsibilities as every other senior manager in the practice.”
“There was some acknowledgement on my part that my track would be a little slower,” Kassman said. “I wanted to be there and if it took me a little longer and I could have a family, I was going to make it work.”
The 2008 nomination form for LEAP was a sign, Kassman said, that her career was going to get back on track.
Instead, it accelerated on a downward spiral.
After successfully completing the LEAP program, Kassman said she was told in 2009 that she was next in line for promotion in her practice. Due to the economy, though, her superiors said, the promotion would not be in 2010, but she would remain the next in line.
In April 2010, a male colleague of Kassman’s was promoted to the job she had been told she was in line for. Kassman said she later found out that she would not be considered for the promotion.
By October that year, her work environment had continued to deteriorate. Kassman claimed in court documents that colleagues had begun lodging “unfounded complaints” about her, which had not happened before in her 17-year tenure at the firm.
Kassman said she hesitates to use the word “resign,” but instead felt forced out of KPMG. She did ultimately quit her job.
“That was the end of my career,” she said. “It just ended. KPMG professional one day, not the next. And it was honestly devastating.”
Kassman and her legal team at Sanford Heisler Kimpel LLP filed her initial complaint in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in June 2011, and by January 2012 they were filing a third complaint with three other plaintiffs.
In February 2013, Kassman and her team won in court the right to file class-wide claims, according to Sanford Heisler’s website. Last year her lawyers sent consent forms to nearly 9,000 past and present female employees at KPMG who could choose to join in the case by Jan. 31.
More than 1,000 former and current employees in KPMG’s tax and advisory services joined the collective legal action.
KPMG’s lawyers did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for the firm issued this statement:
“Two facts about the claims made by the plaintiff speak louder than any others: more than 85 percent of those eligible to have joined this lawsuit chose not to do so; and almost 85 percent of the small number that did join are not current KPMG employees. That is because the allegations that have been made are without merit, which KMPG confirmed after thoroughly and repeatedly reviewing the matter.”
Kassman now runs a tax consulting business, Kassman Consulting LLC, from her home office. She enjoys her clients, but the accounts are smaller than those she handled at KPMG and the work is not as steady as she’d like it to be. “I still feel challenged and in the game, but to a lesser extent,” she said.
As for the case, Kassman said she is “extremely hopeful” and hopes that it will be an impetus for change at KPMG and the industry as a whole.
“I think our message is successfully played out,” she said. “I think KPMG is hearing the message that there has to be changes and hopefully they are making significant changes.”