Sandia Must Produce Docs In Gender Bias Suit, Judge Says

Law360—Daniel Wilson

Lockheed Martin unit Sandia Corp. must hand over information on alleged unfair treatment of women in a putative class action accusing the nuclear weapons research lab operator of systematic bias against female employees, a New Mexico federal judge ruled Thursday, rejecting Sandia’s claims that a related magistrate judge’s discovery order was too broad.

U.S. District Judge James O. Browning rejected Sandia’s objections to a magistrate judge’s May order compelling the company to produce documents to plaintiffs Lisa Kennicott, Lisa Garcia, Sue Phelps and Judi Doolittle, saying the magistrate had not gone beyond the scope of discovery judges are allowed to order under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

“The court concludes that Magistrate Judge Fouratt’s Order is not contrary to law, because he reasonably applied [federal discovery] rule 26(b) to this case,” Judge Browning said.

Sandia was the long-time operator of Sandia National Laboratories, one of three federal nuclear weapons laboratories alongside Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Los Alamos National Laboratory, until a Honeywell International-led joint venture took over in May 2017, having won the latest operations contract the previous year.

Kennicott, Garcia and Phelps — joined by Doolittle in July — sued the company in February 2017, alleging it had violated Title VII through a systematic “policy, pattern, and practice” of discriminating against female employees, involving issues such as pay, promotions and performance evaluations, with a corporate culture “infected with gender bias.”

As part of the suit, they soon asked the company to produce documents referring or related to alleged unfair treatment against women at the company, such as pregnancy discrimination and sexual harassment, which the company argued was overly broad and burdensome.

Sandia said several of the issues that the plaintiffs wanted documentation on were not tied to their class claims — claims related mainly to performance evaluations, compensation and promotions — or were outside the relevant time period, that the request was too vague, and that some of the requested documents were privileged, proprietary or otherwise confidential.

After several months of wrangling over the documents, Sandia produced a complaint log which summarized internal complaints regarding gender discrimination, but none of the other issues related to the treatment of women at the company, prompting the plaintiffs to file a motion to compel in March.

They asked for copies of employee complaints “related to sexual harassment, pregnancy discrimination, hostile work environment, and retaliation,” in full, not just summaries. Sandia again pushed back, leading to a May hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge Gregory Fouratt.

Judge Fouratt granted the motion, finding that the plaintiffs had shown that the requested information was relevant to their claims, with pregnancy discrimination and discrimination after complaints about sexual harassment, for example, manifesting itself in the claimed pay, promotion and evaluation issues.

He noted that the scope of discovery in employment discrimination cases is extensive, but Sandia raised objections, arguing that Judge Fouratt had taken an “overly broad” view of relevance to the plaintiffs’ claims.

After an extensive exploration into various changes over time to federal procedural rules and precedent around what should be considered relevant and “proportional to the needs of the case” for discovery purposes, Judge Browning noted that decisions on both relevance and proportionality have been left largely in the hands of judges, “[making] federal judges Plato’s enlightened guardians.”

In line with that, Judge Fouratt had reasonably ruled that the plaintiffs’ discovery request was relevant and proportional, Judge Browning found. Rule 26(b) is not so constrictive as to allow discovery only on the “narrow confines of the actual claims [plaintiffs] plead,” as Sandia had argued, but can include issues that “bear on” those claims, he said.

And that relevance was further supported by a more fleshed-out amended complaint filed in July after the magistrate judge’s order, further tying the issues together, Judge Browning said.

“Given the allegations in the amended complaint, the court concludes that Magistrate Judge Fouratt’s conclusions are on firm ground,” Judge Browning said. “This case is — in a very general but very real way — about how Sandia Labs treats its female employees on a wide array of topics ... Problems in one area may indicate that there are problems in other areas.”

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The plaintiffs are represented by Kelly M. Dermody, Anne B. Shaver, Michael Levin-Gesundheit, Tiseme Zegeye and Shira J. Tevah of Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein LLP, Gretchen Elsner of Elsner Law & Policy LLC, and Adam T. Klein, Cheryl-Lyn Bentley and Rachel Bien of Outten & Golden LLP.

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The case is Kennicott et al. v. Sandia Corporation d/b/a Sandia National Laboratories, case number 1:17-cv-00188, in the U.S. District Court of New Mexico.