Thursday, July 30, 2020

Ashley Judd’s Sexual Harassment Case Against Harvey Weinstein Can Go Forward

Earlier this week, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court dismissal of actor Ashley Judd’s sexual harassment claim against former Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. The Ninth Circuit opinion allows Judd’s sexual harassment claim to go forward. This decision illustrates how sexual harassment claims are not limited to standard employer/employee or service provider/client relationships.

Judd alleges that she was sexually harassed by Weinstein in 1996 or 1997, when she was starting her acting career and Weinstein was a powerful producer. Judd says Weinstein harassed her during a meeting intended to discuss potential acting opportunities. After she rejected his advances, Judd claims Weinstein prevented her from being cast in movies he produced. Notably, Judd alleges that Weinstein blocked her casting in The Lord of the Rings adaptations in retaliation. In fact, the reason Judd can bring her suit so many years after the usual statute of limitations has passed is because she says did not discover that Weinstein had been retaliating against her until Peter Jackson, who directed, produced, and wrote The Lord of the Rings films, gave an interview in 2017 about Weinstein’s actions against Judd. See Judd v. Weinstein, No. CV 18-5724 PSG (FFMx), 2018 WL 7448914, at *3-5 (C.D. Cal. Sept. 19, 2018). Judd was able to use California’s “discovery rule,” which is an exception to the general rules regarding statutes of limitation. Under the discovery rule, the statute of limitation begins to run not when the injury occurs, but instead when the plaintiff discovers or has reason to discover the cause of action. See No. CV 18-5724 PSG (FFMx), 2018 WL 7448914, at *4.


Among other claims, Judd sued Weinstein in April 2018 for sexual harassment in a professional relationship under California Civil Code Section 51.9. While allowing her other claims to go forward, the United States District Court of the Central District of California dismissed Judd’s sexual harassment claim because it believed Judd and Weinstein did not have the requisite type of professional relationship described in section 51.9.


Section 51.9 is part of California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, which prohibits business discrimination on the basis of sex, race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, and other characteristics. Section 51.9 specifically prohibits sexual harassment in a variety of business relationships outside the workplace. Over the years, section 51.9 has been amended to specifically cover producer/actor relationships. However, because the alleged harassment occurred in 1996 or 1997, the court clarifies that it must use the 1996 version of section 51.9.


In 1996, as the Ninth Circuit explains, the law required the plaintiff to have a certain type of business, service, or professional relationship with the defendant. The 1996 statute listed examples of the types of professional relationships covered by the law, including those between plaintiffs and physicians, attorneys, social workers, accountants, teachers, real estate agents, landlords, and other specific professions. The statute also covered relationships, “substantially similar to any of the above.” Because the relationship between an actor and a producer was not specifically enumerated in the statute, Judd argued that her professional relationship with Weinstein was substantially similar to those listed. The district court disagreed, holding that the defining characteristic of the enumerated relationships was that they were all between service providers and clients. See No. CV 18-5724 PSG (FFMx), 2018 WL 7448914, at *9. Because Weinstein and Judd did not have a service provider/client relationship, the district court dismissed her claim.


Fortunately, the Ninth Circuit agreed with Judd. The Ninth Circuit’s reversal of the district court opinion states that the key element in the enumerated relationships is that, “an inherent power imbalance exists such that, by virtue of his or her ‘business, service, or professional’ position, one party is uniquely situated to exercise coercion or leverage over the other.” Because Judd was an actor at the beginning of her career and Weinstein was an established and powerful Hollywood producer, their relationship may have been defined by an inherent power imbalance. Under the Ninth Circuit’s interpretation of section 51.9, Judd and Weinstein’s professional relationship is potentially covered by the statute and she may pursue her sexual harassment claim. The case has been remanded to the district court.


Section 51.9 looks different now than it did in 1996. The statute was amended in 2018 and now explicitly covers sexual harassment by directors, producers, elected officials, and lobbyists, in addition to all of the professions previously specified.


In this week’s decision, the Ninth Circuit recognized the importance of protecting people from sexual harassment in a wide variety of contexts. The Unruh Civil Rights Act and section 51.9 are important tools in the fight against injustice.


Bryan Schwartz Law has written about sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and retaliation many times before. If you believe you were sexually harassed, discriminated against, or retaliated against, please contact Bryan Schwartz Law.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Workers Sue Whole Foods After Being Disciplined for Wearing Black Lives Matter Masks

Employees of Whole Foods have filed a class action lawsuit against the supermarket for race discrimination and retaliation after they were allegedly disciplined for wearing masks supporting the Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement. While Whole Foods—owned by Amazon—has always had a corporate policy forbidding workers from wearing slogans or logos that are not company-related, the workers allege that this policy was not enforced until many employees began wearing BLM slogans at work. The lawsuit seeks reimbursement for lost wages and expungement of any disciplinary action for the disciplined workers. It also seeks permanent injunctive relief for all employees, calling for Whole Foods to end its policy of not allowing BLM masks at work.


According to the complaint filed in Massachusetts District Court by fifteen workers across five stores, Whole Foods disciplined about 40 employees and fired one employee—Savannah Kinzer—for wearing BLM masks or slogans at work. Employees were sent home or threatened with termination when they wore their BLM masks. Others were written up or placed on a “corrective action pathway,” which requires employees to re-train. Kinzer, in particular, had also organized workers to wear BLM masks. When workers were disciplined, she filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission but was fired within an hour of informing her manager of the complaints. Whole Food maintains that Kinzer’s termination has no relation to her wearing BLM masks and was due to her repeated violations of Whole Food’s Time & Attendance policy. 


The suit alleges that no employees have previously been disciplined for wearing non-work-related slogans, including employees who have worn pins supporting the LGBTQ movement and one employee who wore a pin that said, “Lock him up.” The workers and their lawyers argue that disciplining employees who wear BLM slogans constitutes discrimination against Black employees and other employees who support their Black coworkers. 


This lawsuit comes at a time when many companies have broadened their dress code policy to allow workers to wear BLM apparel at work, including StarbucksMcDonald’s, and Taco Bell. Meanwhile, an independent federal agency called the Office of Special Counsel found that federal employees may express support for the BLM Movement in the workplace without violating the Hatch Act, which restricts political activity by government employees, because the term BLM does not amount to “inherently political activity.”


Bryan Schwartz Law has written about the Black Lives Matter Movement, race discrimination, and retaliation many times before. If you believe you were discriminated against or retaliated against at work, please contact Bryan Schwartz Law today.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Court Forces Jones Day to Produce Salary Documents in Gender Discrimination Suit

Last week, U.S. District Judge Randolph Moss ruled from the bench that Jones Day must produce salary information for all its associates nationwide in a discovery dispute. This ruling is a huge win for the plaintiffs—a group of former female associates—in a $200 million gender discrimination lawsuit against Jones Day, a global law firm with more than 2,500 lawyers across five continents.

Judge Moss required Jones Day to provide salary information about every associate nationwide from 2012 to 2018. Jones Day had argued that it should only have to provide salary data for 580 associates who worked in its New York, Atlanta, and California offices from 2016 to 2018. The plaintiffs had requested salary data for every associate nationwide from 2012 to present. Judge Moss found that there would be little burden on Jones Day to produce the salary data until 2018, after which time none of the plaintiffs continued to work at the firm. Judge Moss also highlighted that not giving the plaintiffs all the salary information would just prolong proceedings. To protect the privacy of the associates, the data will be filed under seal, but analysis of the data can still appear in future filings.

The plaintiffs--Nilab Rahyar Tolton, Andrea Mazingo, Meredith Williams, Saira Draper, Jaclyn Stahl and Katrina Henderson—sued Jones Day in 2019 for gender discrimination through its compensation model, leadership structure, and “fraternity culture.” Jones Day is known for having a black box compensation structure, which keeps attorney pay completely under wraps. However, Jones Day allegedly does promise to compensate associates who produce high-quality work at or above the market. Despite this, the plaintiffs were not compensated within the “Cravath” market scale, which is considered top-of-line pay in Big Law. The plaintiffs’ attorneys have highlighted that the wide data set will ensure greater accuracy in any analysis completed for the case and help prove that Jones Day has been systemically discriminating against women.

Bryan Schwartz Law has written about gender discrimination many times before. If you believe you were discriminated against on the basis of sex, please contact Bryan Schwartz Law today.