California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) recently lost the top two lawyers in its ongoing gender discrimination lawsuit against Activision Blizzard. The chief counsel was fired by the state governor, Gavin Newsom, while the assistant chief counsel resigned today in protest. The assistant claimed that the governor had been actively interfering in the lawsuit against the Call of Duty publisher.
Bloomberg reported today that DFEH assistant chief counsel Melanie Proctor resigned last Tuesday to protest Governor Gavin Newsom’s firing of her boss, Janette Wipper. This firing came after the pair had stepped down from the lawsuit on April 5. That lawsuit, filed on July 20 of last year, alleges that a “frat boy” culture existed at the video game publisher and that there were widespread patterns of female employees at the company being harassed, discriminated against, and abused by male colleagues and supervisors.
In an email sent to DFEH employees, Proctor claims that Governor Newsom “began to interfere” with their lawsuit some weeks prior. His office “repeatedly demanded advance notice of litigation strategy and of next steps in the litigation.” The demands reportedly became more frequent as DFEH started to win in the state courts, and Proctor’s email states that the interference of Newsom’s office “mimick[ed] the interests of Activision’s counsel.” Wipper tried to “protect the agency’s independence” before being terminated. Proctor resigned in protest of the governor’s actions and the firing.
Wipper’s spokesperson told Bloomberg that the former chief counsel will be seeking legal recourse, including a claim under the California Whistleblower Protection Act.
Activision Blizzard had previously reached a $18 million settlement in federal court with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency conducting its own lawsuit, on March 29. However, critics of the settlement have argued that the amount is too low to meaningfully hold an immensely profitable games publisher accountable. Despite the settlement, the DFEH intended to continue pursuing its own lawsuit in court. In her resignation email, Proctor asked the remaining DFEH staff to continue working on the litigation against Activision Blizzard.
The state agency has a history of pushing for bigger settlements in lawsuits against large video game companies. Riot Games was originally supposed to settle a gender discrimination lawsuit for $10 million, but the DFEH intervened, pushing the settlement up to $100 million.
A spokesperson for DFEH told Kotaku: “DFEH does not comment on personnel matters. DFEH will continue to vigorously enforce California’s civil rights and fair housing laws.”
Alexis Ronickher, who represents former Chief Counsel of the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) Janette Wipper and DFEH Assistant Chief Counsel Melanie Proctor, released the below statement in response to press inquiries regarding Ms. Wipper’s termination:
“As Chief Counsel of the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), for the last four years, Janet Wipper has prosecuted systemic violations of California’s equal pay and anti-harassment protections. Under her leadership, DFEH has achieved unprecedented outcomes, including a government settlement on behalf of two thousand women in DFEH v. Riot Games, Inc., for $100 million.
“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. Just four months earlier, Governor Newsom had reappointed Ms. Wipper and DFEH’s Director Kevin Kish had publicly celebrated that reappointment. Her last day is today, April 13, 2022.
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 at DFEH effective today.“Ms. Wipper is evaluating all avenues of legal recourse including a claim under the California Whistleblower Protection Act.“
Both Ms. Wipper and Ms. Proctor encourage DFEH to continue its independent and fair enforcement of California’s civil rights laws. For there to be justice, those with political influence must be forced to play by the same set of laws and rules.”
The Governor’s office and Activision Blizzard did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Update: 4/13/2022 at 2:35 p.m. ET: Erin Mellon, the Communications Director for Governor Newsom, provided the following statement to Kotaku:
“Claims of interference by our office are categorically false. 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.”
Update: 4/13/2022 at 5:12 p.m. ET: DFEH director Kevin Kish sent the following statement in an email:
In recent years, under this administration and my leadership, DFEH has litigated groundbreaking cases that are a model of effective government enforcement of civil rights. We continue to do so with the full support of the administration. Our cases will move forward based on the facts, the law, and our commitment to our mission to protect the civil rights of all Californians.
Ethan Gach contributed additional reporting to this story.