Governor Gavin Newsom faces new scrutiny on Wednesday over the firing of Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) Chief Counsel Janette Wipper following reports that she had allegedly been let go by the Governor for not listening to him and Newsom trying to get involved more in a major sexual harassment lawsuit.
Issues with the case, Department of Fair Employment and Housing v. Activision Blizzard, Inc., date back to July 2021. That month, the DFEH sued Activision Blizzard, a video game company worth $23 billion, over multiple sexual harassment and discrimination practices allegedly done by company employees. The DFEH claimed that the gender-based competition, promotion, termination, constructive discharge, retaliation, and harassment discrimination, as well as alleged unequal pay and failure to prevent discrimination and harassment violated both the California Equal Pay Act and the Fair Employment and Housing Act. In their lawsuit, the DFEH pushed for the court to have Activision Blizzard comply with California’s civil right and equal pay laws, as well as the company paying significant fines, compensatory and punitive damages, state legal fees, and unpaid wages.
According to DFEH assistant Chief Consul Melanie Proctor, the Office of the Governor tried to step in, demanding advance notice of litigation strategy, asking what the next steps were, and making the same moves as Activision’s legal team. As the case progressed and the DFEH won in court, Proctor alleges that the demands from the Governor’s office increased. Wanting to protect the DFEH’s independence on such matters, Wipper decided to continue pursuing the case and began looking at harsher penalties.
“The Office of the Governor repeatedly demanded advance notice of litigation strategy and of next steps in the litigation,” said Proctor in a letter on Tuesday. “As we continued to win in state court, this interference increased, mimicking the interests of Activision’s counsel.”
A few months later in September 2021, A similar lawsuit against Activision filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was settled for $18 million. Wipper, feeling that the amount was too low, did not include enough penalties, and worried about how it would affect the DFEH case, immediately tried to block the settlement, allegedly upsetting the Governor’s office. However, the stay was denied in February, leading for the settlement to be paid last month. Shortly after that, Wipper was fired by Newsom. On Tuesday, Proctor herself resigned over incident in protest, noting further that Wipper had been terminated for trying to keep the agency’s independence and that she was looking into legal recourse, including filing a claim under California’s Whistleblower Protection Act.
“Wipper was fired after attempting to protect the DFEH’s investigation,” added Proctor in her resignation letter. “She is evaluating all avenues of legal recourse including a claim under the California Whistleblower Protection.”
Accusations against the Governor’s Office, Newsom
As of Wednesday afternoon, the Governor’s office has yet to respond the the accusations and possible legal recourse heading Governor Newsom’s way. The DFEH refused to comment on the case, with DFEH deputy communication director Fahizah Alim writing that the “DFEH does not comment on personnel matters. DFEH will continue to vigorously enforce California’s civil rights and fair housing laws.”
The accusations of interference in the case by the Governor’s office, as well as Wipper’s claim of being unjustly fired, brought shockwaves to Sacramento on Wednesday, with many experts noting that, if true, could really harm Newsom’s Governorship.
“Before going into this, we have to remind ourselves that this is only one sides story,” explained California employment lawyer Jim Keeler to the Globe on Wednesday. “We have yet to hear from anyone else. The facts show that the Activision case is ongoing, that Wipper was let go shortly after the EEOC case was settled, and that her assistant resigned.
“That being said, if this is all true, the Governor’s office would really be in hot water. Agencies like the DFEH operate pretty independently, and for the Governor to try and put one hand on the steering wheel and then firing the person for not listening to them like that, that is big. I think we need to hear from the Governor’s office first though, as well as the DFEH and any other place that can shed light on the incident. But, again, if true, this is bad for them. And also, no matter what, this will affect the Activision case which is still active. We need to remember that this is an ongoing case still, and now all of this is happening.”
As Wipper and Proctor were the two top lawyers in the Activision case, it is currently unknown what impact that will have on the case. Currently, the DFEH case against Activision is scheduled to be heard in February 2023.
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