A Sticky Mess for Global Chocolate Company: Sanford Heisler Sharp Files Suit Against Mars Petcare US, Inc., Mars, Inc. for Discrimination and Retaliatory Termination of Female In-House IP Counsel

Posted April 7th, 2020.

April 7, 2020, Nashville, TN – On Friday, April 3, 2020, attorneys at Sanford Heisler Sharp filed a gender discrimination and unlawful termination law suit against Mars Petcare US, Inc., and its parent company Mars, Inc., in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee on behalf of Colleen Kramer, a former in-house intellectual property lawyer at the company.

The complaint alleges the defendants violated Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Tennessee Human Rights Act for discriminating against Kramer during her employment and then terminating her in retaliation for raising gender discrimination claims against the company.

Kramer is represented in the matter by former U.S. District Court Judge Kevin H. Sharp, Managing Partner of Sanford Heisler Sharp’s Nashville office, and Emily P. Linehan, an associate in the Nashville office.

“We believe Mars has fostered a culture of gender discrimination in its in-house legal department, ultimately creating a ‘boys’ club’ that has significantly disadvantaged Colleen Kramer and other women,” said Judge Sharp. “Despite glowing reviews recognizing Ms. Kramer as a patent ‘genius,’ Mars targeted her for discrimination and retaliation after she raised concerns. Her termination is merely the company’s most recent conduct meant to silence yet another female lawyer.”

Kramer worked as an IP attorney for the company for eight years. She worked as an IP Attorney in the Chocolate Segment starting in mid-2011, was promoted to Associate General Counsel-IP in 2013, and subsequently transferred to the Petcare Segment where she served as Associate General Counsel-IP until early April 2019.  During her tenure in the Chocolate Segment, she successfully led its transition from an outside IP counsel model to an in-house model, bringing up to date the entire Segment’s out-of-date IP docket.

In light of Kramer’s success in strategically reorganizing the Chocolate Segment’s in-house IP function, Mars transferred her to the Petcare Segment in 2015 with a mandate to develop its in-house IP capabilities in a similar manner. Kramer succeeded in transitioning Petcare to an in-house IP model and saved the Segment some $1 million in legal fees by removing legal work that was historically managed by outside law firms and by increasing the efficiency of outside and inside counsel.

Between 2017 and 2019, however, the company reduced the gender diversity of its legal team from four female general counsels to one. Led by then-Corporate General Counsel John Donofrio, Mars created a culture that embraced and supported men to the detriment of women.

“Mars touts its commitment to supporting women in the workplace, claiming it ‘works hard to achieve gender parity in leadership positions,’” said Linehan. “But the direction of change in the gender makeup of the company’s legal leadership tells what we believe is the real story: a fundamental transformation that saw women become targets for reprisal and removal.”

Not long after Kramer’s female supervisors were replaced by men, Scott Thompson and Atiba Adams, Kramer would find herself in the boys’ club crosshairs. Despite receiving consistently positive comments on her performance throughout 2018, without even the slightest indication of deficient performance, Mars abruptly downgraded Kramer’s performance to “Below Expectations” in her year-end performance review for 2018. Kramer had dared to question Thompson, a leading member of the boys’ club, and she could no longer be tolerated.

Kramer was informed by Adams that Thompson disliked subordinates voicing concerns about his leadership and told her not to do so. Kramer otherwise shared her opinions in the workplace, something that the boys’ club climate no longer permitted. On one occasion, Kramer explained to Thompson that a solution he proposed in a patent opposition proceeding was not feasible as a legal or practical matter. Kramer tried to seek another solution, but Thompson left the room in irritation and disgust. For Kramer, the tide had turned. Despite glowing mid-year comments from her coworkers and clients, including a key client who praised Kramer for being “proactive” and “collaborative and easy to work with,” and for “significantly improv[ing] the communications around IP in the segment,” Kramer was downgraded in her annual performance review allegedly because she “lacked influencing skills.”

Kramer’s efforts to seek guidance on how to remedy the alleged deficiency were met with silence or dismissal, and she was soon presented with the choice of being placed on an unwarranted 90-day performance improvement plan or continuing to work for three more months and leaving with severance.

When Kramer secured legal counsel to represent her in negotiations with the company, she was told she would have ample time to make her decision, and that the company’s default choice was to begin working with Kramer on the 90-day plan. Indeed, Mars’ expressly stated goal was for Kramer to continue her employment for at least three months and hopefully longer.

During this time, Kramer sent Mars a letter detailing her gender discrimination claims against the company. Upon receipt, Mars’ position changed almost instantaneously. In a display of quintessential and unlawful retaliation, Mars replied within three business days and announced the company had selected a third option—Kramer’s immediate termination. Kramer was in the middle of a business trip she had taken on behalf of the Company with her entire work team, and attending a panel discussion on diversity in the IP legal community, when she received an urgent call from Adams, notifying her that she needed to contact HR immediately. When she did, HR dropped the axe.

One of the 10 largest privately held companies in the U.S. with annual global revenue of more than $37 billion, Mars is a Delaware corporation, with its principal place of business in McLean, VA. The company is a global manufacturer of confectionery, pet foods, and other products as well as a provider of animal care services.  Mars Petcare US, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Mars Inc., is a Delaware corporation with its principal business location in Franklin, Tennessee.

Grant F. Reid has served as Mars, Incorporated’s CEO and president since 2015.

According to the complaint, the company has a history of punishing female attorneys whose feedback is considered “unfavorable” by male supervisors, despite paying lip service to the notion that feedback is welcome from all employees. Among the behaviors documented are such practices as male supervisors discriminating against female attorneys in hiring and firing decisions, and actively encouraging male attorneys to provide negative feedback about female colleagues, which male supervisors then use to forcibly separate female attorneys from the company.  Male attorneys who provide negative feedback or voice complaints about leadership are not similarly targeted.

About Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP

Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP is a national public interest class-action litigation law firm, which has offices in New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, San Diego, Nashville, and Baltimore. Sanford Heisler Sharp focuses on employment discrimination, wage and hour, qui tam, criminal/sexual violence, and financial services matters. The firm represents select individual clients such as executives, lawyers in employment disputes, and whistleblowers. The firm has recovered over $1 billion for its clients. For more information about the firm, call 202-499-5202 or email dsanford@sanfordheisler.com. More information about the firm and its successes can be found at https://sanfordheisler.com/.

For more information, contact Jamie Moss, newsPRos, 201-493-1027, jamie@newspros.com.

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