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California agency suing Activision sees lawyer exodus amid claims of governor meddling

Janette Wipper clashed with the U.S. EEOC over the federal agency's separate litigation against Activision.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — The top California lawyer overseeing the state's sexual discrimination and harassment lawsuit against Activision Blizzard claims she was fired by Governor Gavin Newsom for standing up to the governor's interference in the litigation, and a colleague quit in protest Wednesday.

Janette Wipper, who had been chief counsel of the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing for four years and who had been reappointed just four months ago, was fired last month by Newsom's office, according to a statement Thursday from Wipper's attorney. The second most senior lawyer on the Activision case, Assistant Chief Counsel Melanie Proctor, quit Wednesday out of protest over her boss's firing, according to the attorney.

“On March 29, 2022, in the midst of her success in pursuing DFEH’s sex discrimination and sexual harassment case against Activision Blizzard, Inc., Governor Newsom’s Office notified Ms. Wipper that it was terminating her employment," said attorney Alexis Ronickher, who represents both women. "In protest of the circumstances of Ms. Wipper’s termination, DFEH Assistant Chief Counsel Melanie Proctor, who also served as counsel on DFEH’s litigation against Activision Blizzard, resigned her position."

Wipper was central to the California's agency's increasingly nasty turf war with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which brought its own sexual harassment allegations against the Santa Monica-based creator of the "Call of Duty" and "World of Warcraft" video games. A federal judge last month approved an $18 million consent degree between the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Activision, despite California's objections.

The state agency has faulted the EEOC for handing Activision leverage to walk away cheaply from the sexual harassment and discrimination claims under California's own employment laws, which are far more protective of workers than federal laws.

“By offering only pennies on the dollar to victims of Activision’s discrimination and harassment, with no formal discovery or litigation whatsoever, the decree would actually create hardship for EEOC by doing serious long-term damage to its mission and reputation in California and beyond,” the California agency said in its unsuccessful bid to stay the federal case.

The EEOC has maintained the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing breached a work agreement that would give the federal agency the lead with the sexual harassment claims against Activision, leaving the sexual discrimination for the state agency to resolve, Wipper said in an October 2021 federal court filing arguing the EEOC has no authority to prosecute or settle claims under California law.

Bloomberg News reported Wednesday that Proctor said an email to her department's staff that Newsom and his office had begun to intervene with the Activision case, demanding advance notice of litigation strategy and of next steps in the litigation. The interference by the governor's office mimicked the interests of Activision's lawyers, the email said.

A spokeswoman for Newsom denied that the governor had tried to interfere in the Activision litigation.

"Claims of interference by our office are categorically false," Erin Mellon said in an email. "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."

A spokeswoman for the Department of Fair Employment and Housing said the agency doesn't comment on personnel matters.

Under Wipper, the department has previously struck a tough attitude in pursuing sexual harassment and discrimination claims in the video game industry when it opposed a $10 million settlement of a class action against Riot Games. After the department intervened in that case, the “League of Legends” publisher agreed to pay $100 million to settle the case.

The state's lawsuit against Activision in Los Angeles state court is scheduled to go trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court in February 2023.

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Categories / Employment, Entertainment, Government, Technology

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