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The race discrimination suit against Coca-Cola is not the first time that Washington, D.C. class action litigator Cyrus Mehri has removed a lead plaintiff from a suit. In 1997, Mehri and lead counsel at his previous firm — Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll — asked the lead plaintiff to step down in a historic race discrimination suit against Texaco. Former lead plaintiff, Bari-Ellen Roberts, offers details of the suit in her book, “Roberts vs. Texaco: A True Story of Race and Corporate America.” Roberts had been the first of two named plaintiffs in the suit, filed against Texaco in 1994. In March 1997, the case settled for $176 million, the largest race discrimination settlement to date. Roberts was a lead plaintiff and prospective class representative until Texaco refused to sign the settlement deal unless Roberts resigned from Texaco and surrendered her legal status as lead plaintiff, according to her book. Roberts’ removal as lead plaintiff for the good of a class created only as part of the settlement with Texaco and the presence of Mehri are just two of several striking parallels between the three-year litigation against Texaco and the current litigation against Coke. Among the parallels: Neither case was certified as a class action before a settlement agreement, although both were constantly referred to as class actions by the plaintiffs’ lawyers. Texaco’s suit was certified as a class only for the limited purpose of settlement. Coke’s has yet to be certified as a class but the proposed settlement would treat 2,000 current and former employees as a class. In both suits, when a settlement agreement appeared close, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition weighed in, attracting national media attention and threatening boycotts that caused stock prices to tumble. In both cases, Jackson contacted the plaintiffs and then met with company executives to try to extract concessions for the black community. The plaintiffs were surprised to learn that lawyers shaped the strategy, made the day-to-day decisions and controlled the course of the case. “It was,” Roberts wrote in her book, “like being a soldier in a remote outpost far from the main battleground. I could only hear the distant thunder of legal artillery. I was not calling the shots.” Roberts writes she was asked to step aside when Texaco agreed to settle. Texaco had learned that she had signed a book deal and company executives had angrily refused to complete the settlement if Roberts insisted on writing about the case. Texaco’s chairman, she wrote, “insisted that Texaco would not sign the final settlement papers unless I agreed to either resign from the company or remain silent.” Determined to tell her story, Roberts resigned and stepped down as lead plaintiff.

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