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Legendary Bean Company Rancho Gordo Granted New Trial in Discrimination Lawsuit

On Monday, a Napa judge granted the famous bean company’s request for a new trial in the ongoing saga surrounding allegations of pregnancy discrimination

Variety of beans getting ready for shipment in the factory of bean supplier Rancho Gordo seen on Wednesday, March 4, 2020, in Napa, Calif.
In 2021, a former Rancho Gordo employee sued the company over alleged pregnancy discrimination.
Photo By Liz Hafalia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images
Lauren Saria is the editor of Eater SF and has been writing about food, drinks, and restaurants for more than a decade.

After a jury awarded more than a quarter of a million dollars in June to a former worker who accused Napa-based bean company Rancho Gordo of discrimination, a new ruling now means the fight isn’t over yet. On Monday, Napa County judge Cynthia Smith, who presided over the case between Martha Martinez and Rancho Gordo, granted a motion for a new trial at the request of the plaintiff, Rancho Gordo.

In a written statement provided to Eater SF on Tuesday afternoon, Rancho Gordo’s attorney Shane Anderie described the ruling on the motion as a “temporary vindication,” adding that the company now will begin preparations for a new trial over alleged pregnancy discrimination. “The legal process has been — and continues to be — surprisingly daunting for a local small business to defend itself,” the company’s statement reads in part.

The possibility of a new trial marks the latest development in a case that started when Martinez filed a lawsuit against the company in 2021, which was first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle. In the lawsuit, Martinez alleges Rancho Gordo — bean evangelist Steve Sando’s decades-old company known largely for its cult-favorite monthly bean club — discriminated against her on the bases of sex, national origin, and pregnancy; the lawsuit also accuses the company of retaliation and wrongful termination.

According to the Chronicle, Martinez began working in Rancho Gordo’s shipping department in late 2019. She’d never heard of the company before and was placed in the job via a staffing agency to help Rancho Gordo ahead of the holiday rush. Not long after she started, however, other workers allegedly began making derogatory comments about her race, though she did not report the alleged behavior to the company at that time. Then in early 2020, Martinez alleges she told some of her coworkers that she was pregnant. Two days later, after telling her supervisor she couldn’t come to work due to a family emergency, Rancho Gordo terminated her work assignment.

The case went to trial in March 2023. After four days of deliberations, the jury granted Martinez nearly $252,000 in damages and found the company liable for both pregnancy discrimination and retaliation, the Chronicle reported. In May, however, Judge Smith overturned the jury’s decision on the retaliation claim, stating that while there was “substantial evidence” the company fired her due to her pregnancy, there was not sufficient evidence Rancho Gordo retaliated against her.

Now, in the order granting the company’s request for a new trial, Judge Smith writes that there was also “insufficient evidence” for the jury to have found the company liable for pregnancy discrimination.

Part of the decision stems from a lack of evidence proving Rancho Gordo’s director of operations Jason Lucero knew Martinez was pregnant when he fired her, the order states. “There was simply no evidence, let alone sufficient evidence, that would support a jury determination that Mr. Lucero knew Ms. Martinez was pregnancy [sic] before she was terminated,” the order reads. The judge further writes that the evidence provided was insufficient in demonstrating Martinez’s firing was “motivated by discriminatory animus.”

Reached by phone on Wednesday afternoon, Arlo Uriarte of Liberation Law Group, one of the attorneys representing Martinez, said he expects both parties to appeal portions of the latest ruling, meaning the legal drama will likely drag on further. “In my experience, many defendants will accept the wisdom of the jury,” Uriarte said. “But there are also defendants that can’t accept that and throw money at the process.”

A status conference for the case is set for August 25.