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Another woman joins gender pay lawsuit against Disney

Current and former female Walt Disney Co. executives alleging “rampant gender pay discrimination” have expanded their case against the Burbank entertainment giant.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Daniel J. Buckley on Tuesday allowed an additional employee — Chelsea Hanke — to join the plaintiffs suing Disney. Hanke is the 10th female executive now included in the lawsuit, which was filed last April by two women. Eight of the women still work at Disney.

Buckley also agreed to the plaintiffs’ request to widen the case to include alleged violations under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, in addition to the state’s equal pay act.

The lawsuit, which seeks class action status, describes several alleged instances in which female employees complained that they were paid substantially less than men performing similar duties. The women, most of whom work in Disney’s Burbank and Glendale offices, have demanded a jury trial.

They seek salary increases, back pay, damages and adjustments to salaries of other female employees who may also be affected. The group also has asked Disney to create a task force on equity and fairness.

The proposed class action lawsuit comes as Hollywood and tech companies continue to confront allegations of disparities in the treatment of women.

The company, which employs more than 220,000 people, has denied the allegations.

“Disney is firmly committed to equitable pay and maintains robust pay-equity practices and policies,” Disney said in a statement. “The lawsuit’s generalized allegations to the contrary are ill-informed and unfounded, and we look forward to presenting our response to the individual claims in court at the appropriate time.”

The case began with LaRonda Rasmussen, who joined Disney in 2008 as a financial analyst. The biracial executive, who has since been promoted to product development manager at Disney’s Glendale complex, learned three years ago that she was earning dramatically less than men in her unit.

At the time, Rasmussen was earning $109,958 a year. She alleges that her male colleagues made $16,000 a year to $40,000 a year more.

Rasmussen, 47, complained to the company’s human resources department and requested a salary audit. Months later, Disney acknowledged her lower salary but said the differential “was not due to gender,” according to the lawsuit.

Nonetheless, in November 2017, Disney increased Rasmussen’s salary by nearly 23%, or $25,000 a year. Payroll records noted that the salary increase was an “equity adjustment,” the suit said. Even after the increase, Rasmussen alleges that she remains on the low end of the pay scale for workers performing such functions.

Although five of the 10 plaintiffs are women of color, the lawsuit does not allege racial discrimination.

The latest plaintiff, Hanke, 34, joined Disney in 2013. For the last five years, she has worked in Disney’s home entertainment division and helped lead marketing campaigns for major studio releases.

She alleges in the lawsuit that she discovered that a male colleague’s starting salary was 16% higher than her starting salary of $75,000. She said that she enjoys her job at Disney (her LinkedIn profile page features an illustration of a silhouette of a planet-sized Mickey Mouse eclipsing the sun), but that after she began complaining in 2017 and 2018, her opportunities for advancement stalled.

For example, when she prepared for an interview to join an internal support group called Women@Disney, she said, higher-ranking female executives discouraged her from addressing gender issues with Disney Executive Chairman Bob Iger, according to the lawsuit.

She was told “that it would be disrespectful to ask Disney [then-]CEO Bob Iger when the company would be led by a woman,” the complaint states. She alleged in the lawsuit that since she raised her complaints, she faced retaliation by receiving smaller than average merit increases and was passed over for promotions.

“There has been no retaliation against Ms. Hanke, her fellow plaintiffs, or anyone else who has raised a question about fair pay,” Disney said Tuesday.

The case is in its infancy, with both sides wrangling over procedural grounds. Disney, however, intends to fight any class-action designation, claiming the cases presented are individual in nature and not part of a larger pattern. One woman recently dropped out of the lawsuit.

San Francisco litigator Lori E. Andrus, who has spent two decades challenging large companies on their employment practices, is spearheading the case. She previously wrangled a $4-million settlement of a class action lawsuit against Farmers Insurance Group.

Felicia A. Davis at law firm Paul Hastings is handling the case on behalf of Disney.