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Court Rejects Panasonic's Bid For New Judge In Racial Discrimination Suit

NJ.com — Monday, April 15, 2015

By Naomi Nix | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

NEWARK — A New Jersey court this month rejected Panasonic Corporation of North America's bid to start the process of replacing the judge presiding over a racial discrimination lawsuit against the company.

The appellate division of the Superior Court of New Jersey ruled on Apr. 7, not to overturn Essex County Judge Christine Farrington's decision not to recuse herself from the case after the company alleged she was biased against them.

Panasonic spokesman Jim Reilly said in a statement that the company would be appealing the matter to the Supreme Court of New Jersey.

"We are seeking an immediate, complete and thorough review from the Supreme Court," he said. "We are disappointed that the Appellate Division chose not to review the lower court's decision at this time."

But the plaintiffs' lawyer, Erika Smith, said Panasonic's actions were just another attempt to delay the legal process.

"I have never had such excess litigation, such obstruction of discovery," she said in an interview. "It is just the most vicious litigation of my entire career."

The highly-contentious case centers around three African American women who filed a lawsuit alleging they were the victims of race and sex discrimination while they worked as executives for the Japanese-based electronics company.

In their lawsuit, filed in state court in 2013, Glorina Williams Cruz, Marilyn Joseph and Sandra Karriem claim they were denied job growth and salary increases because of persistent discrimination on the workforce.

Court records show a long and protracted fight between the company and the women.

In December, Panasonic filed a motion seeking Farrington's recusal. In court papers, the company said it believes "that the trial judge cannot be fair or impartial."

Among the issues that Panasonic cites as evidence of bias was a ruling Farrington made to sanction the company's attorneys for more than $94,000 for allegedly violating the rules of professional conduct for not turning over documents to the plaintiffs.

After learning in 2012 she was passed over for a promotion in favor of a white man she believes is less qualified, Cruz emailed documents to an attorney she believed would be relevant to claims of discrimination, court documents say.

Those documents included bonus and promotion information for other employees — which Cruz had access to as a senior executive in the human resources department, court records say.

But the plaintiffs later claimed that they inadvertently supplied some of those records to the defense team, which they argued falls under attorney-client privilege. They sent a letter to Panasonic demanding the documents be returned, which the company did not comply with.

Farrington ruled in October 2014 that the documents were not privileged but said Panasonic attorneys should have returned them to the plaintiffs. Panasonic's actions were therefore a violation of the rules of conduct warranting a sanction, Farrington said in her order.

Cruz, Joseph and Karriem allege in their lawsuit that it is a well-known fact that Panasonic's employment practices discriminate against minorities and women.

"The human resource system was and is compromised and (Panasonic) manipulates the system to favor 'the good old boys network' rather than engaging in a transparent selection process for employment opportunities that is inclusive of (non-Asian) minority and female employees," the lawsuit said.

Activists held a rally last month in front of Panasonic's headquarters in Newark to support the women. Additionally they argued, the company has not been a good corporate citizen to the city because it has not hired enough local residents.

"We don't want to give tax breaks to companies that discriminate. That's really the bottom line," Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, executive director of New Jersey Citizen Action, said last month.

Reilly, the Panasonic spokesman, said in a statement at the time that the allegations were unfounded.

"Panasonic has policies in place that prohibit any discriminatory employment practices," he said. "We regret the inconvenience this unwarranted demonstration has meant for our staff, our neighbors and others who are ending their workday, many of whom are trying to get home to their families."

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka has previously said in a statement the city will work with the company on diversity issues.

"We are working with Panasonic to ensure that they engage in policies that include diverse hiring practices and focused efforts to include Newarkers," he said.

The New Jersey Economic Development Authority awarded the company a $102.4 million tax subsidy in 2011 to move its headquarters from Secaucus to Newark.

The corporation signed a $200 million, 15-year lease with Matrix Development Group to occupy more than half of the 14-story building at the corner of McCarter Highway and Raymond Boulevard.

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