A former lawyer with California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing has accused Governor Gavin Newsom of interfering with the agency’s sexual harassment lawsuit against Activision Blizzard. According to an email seen by Bloomberg, DFEH assistant chief counsel Melanie Proctor said Tuesday she was resigning her position to protest the abrupt firing of Janette Wipper, the watchdog’s chief counsel.
“The Office of the Governor repeatedly demanded advance notice of litigation strategy and of next steps in the litigation,” Proctor writes in her resignation. “As we continued to win in state court, this interference increased, mimicking the interests of Activision’s counsel.” Proctor alleges Wipper was “abruptly terminated” for attempting to protect the DFEH’s independence. According to the email, the former chief counsel is considering “all avenues of legal recourse,” including a claim under California’s Whistleblower Protection Act.
"Claims of interference by our office are categorically false," Erin Mellon, communications director for Governor Newsom, told Engadget. "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."
News of the resignation comes little more than two weeks after a federal judge ordered Activision Blizzard to pay $18 million to settle a US Equal Opportunity Commission lawsuit accusing the publisher of fostering a discriminatory workplace. Before that complaint was filed, California's fair employment agency launched its own lawsuit against Activision Blizzard following a two-year investigation into sexual harassment allegations at the publisher. The DFEH case is currently scheduled to go to trial in February 2023, but the allegations put forward by Proctor are likely to raise questions about the ultimate fate of the lawsuit.
"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," said DFEH director Kevin Kish. "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."
Update 4/14/22 11:33AM ET: This post has been updated with statements from both Governor Newsom's office and DFEH director Kevin Kish.