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A high-ranking attorney at California’s civil rights enforcement agency has resigned, accusing the governor’s office of meddling with a discrimination lawsuit against Activision Blizzard.
Department of Fair Employment and Housing assistant chief counsel Melanie Proctor on Tuesday quit in protest of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s termination of chief counsel Janette Wipper in March, a lawyer representing the pair confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter. Both of the attorneys on April 5 withdrew as counsel for the agency in the Activision Blizzard lawsuit.
Newsom, in a statement, denied accusations of interfering in the case, which has been muddled by a turf war with a federal agency.
“Claims of interference by our office are categorically false,” said the office’s communications director Erin Mellon. “The Newsom administration supports the effective work DFEH has done under Director Kevin Kish to enforce civil rights laws and protect workers, and will continue to support DFEH in their efforts to fight all forms of discrimination and protect Californians.”
In an email to staff on April 12 reviewed by Bloomberg, which first reported the resignation, Proctor said Newsom’s office “began to interfere” in recent weeks as the agency’s lawsuit against Activision Blizzard proceeded in Los Angeles Superior Court. She accused the governor of “favoring those with political influence.”
“The Office of the Governor repeatedly demanded advance notice of litigation strategy and of next steps in the litigation,” Proctor wrote in the email. “As we continued to win in state court, this interference increased, mimicking the interests of Activision’s counsel.”
Wipper will no longer be in her post starting April 14. Alexis Ronickher, a partner at Katz, Marshall & Banks representing her and Proctor, said in a statement that Wipper is “evaluating all avenues of legal recourse including a claim under the California Whistleblower Protection Act.”
The accusations of obstruction further complicates DFEH’s lawsuit against Activision Blizzard, which Microsoft has proposed to buy for $68.7 billion in a deal that could reshape the gaming industry. The complaint primarily advances allegations of discrimination against the company, centering around accusations of a “frat boy” culture in which women are subjected to unequal pay, constant sexual harassment and retaliation.
The agency, which sued first, had sought to block a proposed $18 million settlement in a similar case by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It argued that the deal may undercut its lawsuit.
Anyone who was employed by Activision Blizzard at any time since September 2016 can participate in the EEOC’s deal on claims for harassment, retaliation and pregnancy discrimination. By doing so, they waive their right to participate in the DFEH’s lawsuit on overlapping allegations.
A federal judge on March 29 approved the deal over objections from the California agency.
Some critics, including Activision Blizzard employees and the Communications Workers of America, opposed EEOC’s settlement. The CWA argued that its “woefully inadequate” and aims to preempt the lawsuit brought by DFEH. It claimed that California law provides for larger damages and that it would prefer for DFEH to pursue its case.
Ronickher said that DFEH has thrived under Wipper’s leadership, pointing to a $100 million settlement with Riot Games to resolve a gender discrimination class action.
“Both Ms. Wipper and Ms. Proctor encourage DFEH to continue its independent and fair enforcement of California’s civil rights laws,” Ronickher continued. “For there to be justice, those with political influence must be forced to play by the same set of laws and rules.”
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