The suit, brought by three women, centers on the company’s controversial former system of evaluating employees. The plaintiffs say the system resulted in fewer raises and promotions among women in technical positions than their male counterparts.
A federal judge has denied Microsoft’s request to dismiss key claims of a class-action gender-discrimination suit against the company, allowing the case to proceed.
U.S. District Judge James Robart of Seattle said in an order Friday that three women suing Microsoft were specific enough in their claims and presented a plausible case that Microsoft’s pay and promotion practices had the effect of treating male and female engineers differently.
“At a minimum, the parties have set forth multiple plausible causes of the alleged disparate impact on female technical employees at Microsoft,” Robart said.
The ruling sets the stage for what is likely to be months of wrangling over the procedural aspects of the lawsuit, including what documents Microsoft and the plaintiffs must turn over to the other side, and the roster of outside experts both can ask to weigh in.
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Friday’s ruling hinged on the plaintiffs description of an important pillar of their case: Microsoft’s controversial former performance review system.
The method, dubbed stack ranking, evaluated employees and ranked them from best to worst on a scale of one to five. It also set a cap on the portion of employees who could receive each ranking.
Managers would get together twice a year to sort out their employees into the curve, a process that was then reviewed by other, more senior leaders.
That system, plaintiffs say, included subjective criteria, operated “in an environment overwhelmingly dominated by men,” and had the result of awarding fewer raises and promotions to women in engineering roles than their male counterparts. The review system that replaced stack ranking in late 2013, called Connect, is functionally “stack ranking by a different name,” the plaintiffs say.
Microsoft says the review system was not arbitrary, and has denied the women’s allegations of discrimination.
Asked for comment on Friday’s order, a Microsoft spokeswoman in an emailed statement said the company was committed to a diverse workforce, and “to a workplace where all employees have the chance to succeed.”
The order contained one win for the Redmond company by establishing a narrower set of would-be class members in the suit.
Robart agreed with Microsoft’s proposal to limit the potential class bringing claims under Washington discrimination law to Sept. 16, 2012, three years before former Microsoft employee Katie Moussouris filed the suit in federal court.
Lawyers for Moussouris had pushed for the putative class to stretch back to May 2011, a date that corresponds to Moussouris’ 2014 filing of discrimination claims with state and federal regulators.
The next step in the case, document disclosure, is scheduled to continue through December.
Robart last month sharply criticized Microsoft for disregarding his orders earlier in that process, saying a law firm Microsoft had hired “doesn’t speak English” and ordering Microsoft’s senior legal officers to sign off on all future filings in the case.
In August, the plaintiffs’ lawyers told the court that U.S. Labor Department investigators had found preliminary evidence of gender-based discrimination at the company, though it’s unclear what the behavior was or which Microsoft units the findings targeted. The company said at the time that it disagreed with the assessment.