Lowe’s wants to keep records in discrimination court case sealed

Michael Jones, chief custom officer of Lowe’s until October 2016
Michael Jones, chief custom officer of Lowe’s until October 2016

Lowe’s is trying to keep under seal court documents related to a discrimination case filed in 2017, when an African-American former executive claimed he was wrongfully terminated by the Mooresville retailer.

The federal court complaint alleges that Michael Jones, Lowe’s chief custom officer until October 2016, was unfairly pitted against a white executive in a succession plan to take over as CEO for Robert Niblock, who also is white. Although Jones improved business for Lowe’s, he still received negative performance feedback, the complaint alleges.

Jones also raised concerns about the company’s culture, according to the complaint, particularly about inclusion and diversity, and was told by another executive that he had “stuck his nose where it didn’t belong.”

Lowe’s has called the allegations “unfounded and irresponsible.”

The suit alleges Jones is owed nearly $12.5 million in severance and other benefits, lost earnings, as well as “damages for humiliation and emotional harm.”

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Last October, Lowe’s filed a motion for summary judgment, meaning it wanted the case decided without a full trial.

The company also filed 13 exhibits related to the case under seal. It is not known what those documents contain because the court has not yet decided whether to unseal them.

On Dec. 11, attorneys for Jones argued that those files should be available in open court.

Two weeks later, Lowe’s again asked that the documents remain sealed because they “contain sensitive business and other confidential and proprietary information.”

Over the next few weeks, the two parties went back and forth with motions to seal or unseal the files.

This week, attorneys for Jones said in court filings that in order to convince a judge that files should remain sealed, the defendant “must present compelling, specific reasons why the court should overcome the First Amendment presumption of public access to judicial records.” Lowe’s failed to make a legal argument for keeping the files sealed, according to Jones’s attorney, Luke Largess.

“A defendant cannot invoke the authority of a court to seal documents to avoid the publication at summary judgment of potentially embarrassing information, such as the evidence showing how it treated plaintiff and then terminated him in this succession process,” Largess wrote.

A hearing related to the motion for summary judgment is set for Jan. 23. At that time, the court will also decide what should be kept under seal.

“This issue is currently before the court, and we don’t have a comment at this time,” Lowe’s spokeswoman Jackie Pardini Hartzell said in an email.

Lowe’s has gotten a nearly complete makeover of its executive leadership team in the years since the departure of Jones, who at the time was the only minority in a senior management position at the company.

In March 2018, Lowe’s announced that Niblock would be stepping down after 13 years as CEO. In May, the board named former J.C. Penney CEO Marvin Ellison as Niblock’s successor.

Ellison, the first black CEO of Lowe’s and among only a handful of African-American CEOs of Fortune 500 companies nationwide, is a former longtime executive at Home Depot.

As the retail and sports business reporter for the Observer, Katie Peralta covers everything from grocery-store competition in Charlotte to tax breaks for pro sports teams. She is a Chicago native and graduate of the University of Notre Dame.