Christmas might not feel so merry for the Walt Disney Company this year after a hearing this morning on the potential class action pay equity lawsuit from 10 female employees of the House of Mouse did not go to a happy place for the Bob Iger-run company.
With LaRonda Rasmussen and seven more of the probable plaintiffs in the otherwise empty DTLA courtroom of Judge Daniel Buckley today, the simmering and potentially multi-million dollar matter survived the legal shiv of the entertainment giant to cut it up and knock it out in one go. While class action certification has not yet been granted by the courts, the next move Disney dreads is lot more likely to become a fact now that company’s desired demurrer and perhaps its motion to strike has been taken out of the equation.
“Disney’s arguments all concern class certification and all go to cut this lawsuit off at the knees …and prevent the court form doing it complete analysis,” the plaintiffs’ lawyer Lori Andrus of Andrus Anderson said Wednesday. “We allege that this problem of pay discrepancy run throughs Disney’s business. This is a matter of billions of dollars being kept out of the California economy.”
With discovery next on the agenda, this means every level of the sprawling Disney empire could be put under the spotlight in what may eventually become an action of tens of thousands of women. Under California’s Equal Pay Act, of Disney’s more than 60,000 employees in the Golden State, that would include the recent influx of Fox staffers after the $71.3 billion acquisition of most of the Rupert Murdoch-owned company’s assets earlier this year.
Rejecting Disney’s demurrer “does not mean they get blanket discovery into everything and anything,” Judge Buckley caution Disney’s clearly displeased main lawyer Felicia Davis of Paul Hasting LLP as she sought to blunt his tentative ruling issued just before the hearing began. “I don’t know sitting here if every one of those 100 companies engaged in that practice,” Andrus noted of the corporate structure of the full breadth of the Disney and how its pay inequity is established. “What does a Disney employee face in her career at Disney?” the attorney added as her main concern, stressing she didn’t want to be digging “too far in the weeds too quickly” and the company’s HR departments not releasing documentation to her case.
However, noting that a final decision of class action certification is still to come, Judge Buckley knee capped Davis’ postulation that there are too many unknowns, “moving targets,” and too many Disney employees in California and worldwide for the company to be able to fairly defend itself.
“Their theory is women are paid less than men, you know exactly what they are complaining about,” the LASC judge told Davis and the court. “Discovery will flesh out how you address the different categories of employees or different categories of sub-classes,” he added as Davis argued that the class “should be dismissed or narrowed.”
“Today’s ruling merely deferred to a later point the decision whether plaintiffs’ individual claims are suitable for class action treatment,” a TWDC spokesperson said to Deadline at the end of today’s hearing. “We look forward to making our case that they are not at that time.”
Walt Disney Studios employees Rasmussen and Karen Moore first launched the action back on April 3 in a move for back pay, lost benefits and other compensation. Claiming that there is institutional discrepancy in compensation based on gender at Disney, the duo was joined by eight other women on September 18 in an amended complaint that the company unsurprisingly declared deserved no standing and shouldn’t be allowed to become a class action suit.
In a series of what could be termed call and response filings from the plaintiffs’ attorney Andrus and Disney’s Davis, the parties have battled the past months over the validity of this seemingly wide spread discrepancies in compensation becoming one sparling case. Calling the case “an assortment of individual claims, based on highly individualized allegations,” Disney have said the comparisons, statistical or otherwise, that the plaintiffs’ alleged are false equivalence.
“If we were to get an 11th plaintiff tomorrow how would Disney know what to compare them to,” Davis asserted to the court. The attorney said moving forward to class certification this would require depositions from every single plaintiff current and to potentially follow. We can’t depose every single plaintiff, every single class member” for “everything single women in every single job at every single level.”
Setting deadlines for further a discovery plan, today’s hearing concluded on a “big picture perspective,” as Judge Buckley termed it, with a probe into Disney’s Global HR department. “You should be able to get some discovery fairly quickly as to the 10 named plaintiffs,” Buckley told the assembled lawyers, setting the parties to reconvene on January 14. “It allows us to start looking at proper discovery of everything else.”