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Coca-Cola reportedly puts brakes on controversial diversity plan after project’s lead lawyer bails

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The Coca-Cola Company has put a hold on a highly controversial diversity initiative that involved penalizing outside law firms if they didn’t meet certain diversity quotas following major pushback and the resignation of the initiative’s developer.

Bradley Gayton, the beverage maker’s former general counsel, resigned without warning last month after being on the job for less than a year amid rising opposition to quotas, especially, steadily grew, the New York Post reported.

Specifically, legal experts were raising doubts that Gayton’s proposals would pass muster under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which forbids employers from treating workers and staff differently on account of their ethnicity.

A spokesman for Coke, Scott Leith, said that attorney Monica Howard Douglas, who replaced Gayton, is currently in the process of reviewing the initiative.

“When there is a leadership change, it takes time for the new leader to review the current status of the team, organization, and initiatives,” he said, according to The Post.

“Monica is fully committed to the notions of equity and diversity in the legal profession, and we fully expect she will take the time necessary to thoughtfully review any plans going forward,” Leith added.

Gayton raised eyebrows in January when he introduced his plan to implement punitive measures against law firms that did not adhere to diversity quotas, such as cutting ties to them or reducing their fees.

The plan required any law firm that sought to do business with the beverage giant to ensure that at least 30 percent of billable hours would come from “diverse attorneys,” while at least 50 percent of that time would involve black lawyers.

“The hard truth is that our profession is not treating the issue of diversity and inclusion as a business imperative,” wrote Gayton in January as he introduced the plan. “We have a crisis on our hands and we need to commit ourselves to specific actions that will accelerate the diversity of the legal profession.”

However, his abrupt resignation in April has created new doubts that the plan can survive legal muster, as people outside of the company are urging Coca-Cola executives to shelve the diversity requirement.

Project on Fair Representation, a legal defense group, posted an open letter to the legacy drink manufacturer last week warning that the “racial quota requirements” called for by Gayton are “unlawful.”

“The abrupt departure last week of Bradley Gayton after less than a year as General Counsel suggests that Coca-Cola is already aware that its racial quota requirements on outside firms are indefensible. Coca-Cola should act swiftly to publicly undo this unfair, polarizing, and illegal policy,” the statement added. “Without a public statement forthcoming from Coca-Cola reversing these quotas, it must be assumed that the policy is still in effect and legal challenges may be forthcoming.”

Douglas, who replaced Gayton, said that the drink maker was “taking a pause for now” on the initiative but would most likely be reimagining and salvaging portions of the diversity plan, according to Law.com.

Gayton spent almost 30 years as Ford’s top attorney before being hired by Coca-Cola in September 2020. He still retains a relationship with the beverage giant, The Post reported.

Coca-Cola has already had a negative experience ‘going woke.’

In February, a course on “Confronting Racism” that urged workers, among other things, to be “less white” was exposed and posted online, drawing a deflecting rebuttal from the company.

Jon Dougherty

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