Discrimination Suit Can Proceed Against Contra Costa DA's Office

San Francisco firms Nichols Law and Ratner Molineaux are representing 5 women deputy DAs

Published in 2021 Northern California Super Lawyers Magazine

A federal court in San Francisco has given the go-ahead to a discrimination suit filed by five female DAs against the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office.

“The women are alleging, in essence, that they have been discriminated against by the DA’s office because of their sex, and—in the case of the [four] women over 40—because of their age,” says Sarah Nichols, an employment & labor attorney whose firm, Nichols Law in San Francisco, is handling the suit, along with Ratner Molineaux, in Walnut Creek and Oakland.

The Contra Costa DA’s office settled another sexual-discrimination suit back in 2012 and had made significant progress toward overcoming sex-related bias, according to the plaintiffs in the current lawsuit, Mary Elizabeth Knox, Rachel Piersig, Alison Chandler, Mary Blumberg and Jill Henderson.

“The women at the DA's office have worked hard to make progress for women in that office,” says Nichols. “Our clients were optimistic about a new district attorney making further progress.” However, Nichols says, the women allege that Diana Becton, who became DA in 2017, “took steps to diminish our clients’ roles and visibility in the office by transferring them to positions of lesser status and responsibility in favor of younger, less able men.”

The lawsuit was filed under both federal law (Title VII) of the 1964 Civil Rights law and California state law. The county moved to dismiss the lawsuit, saying it failed to meet standards under federal law. On May 20, the judge disagreed with the county’s motion.

“Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero held that we articulated valid claims of age and sex discrimination under both state and federal law,” says Nichols.

Spero said the lawsuit made detailed, plausible allegations about the women’s qualifications for jobs they were denied or demoted from, in favor of less experienced male district attorneys.

“Each of the plaintiffs has alleged facts giving rise to a plausible inference that she was subjected to at least one (and often more than one) adverse employment action on the basis of her gender,” Spero wrote in his ruling. 

As the case goes forward, Nichols says, her clients—all of whom still work for the Contra Costa DA’s Office—are seeking monetary damages, restoration to their previous positions, and an injunction against further discrimination and retaliation.

“As lawyers,” she says, “we always hope that litigation calling out systemic bias has the effect of not only benefitting our clients, but also, of making permanent institutional changes.”

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