Thursday, May 20, 2010

Quarter-billion dollar verdict in sex discrimination suit highlights risks of family responsibility discrimination

In October 2009, Working Mother magazine named Novartis Pharmaceuticals one of its 100 best companies for working families, lauding its flexible work schedules, job-sharing, telecommuting, and customizable child-care offerings. According to a federal jury in Manhattan, all was not what it seemed at Novartis. That jury found that Novartis had discriminated against women over pay and promotions. The cost to Novartis: $3.3 million in compensatory damages to the 12 name plaintiffs, and another $250 million in punitive damages to a class of 5,600 female sales reps and entry-level managers. The allegation that perhaps led the jury to award more than a quarter-billion dollars was this gem from a Novartis manager explaining his preference against hiring young women: “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes flex time and a baby carriage.” That statement has not only cost Novartis a whopping 2.6% of its annual revenue, but also its reputation as a great workplace for working moms.

One of the very first posts I wrote on this blog (almost three years ago to the day) discussed a $2.1 million verdict handed down by a Cuyahoga County jury against Kohl’s. In that case, the plaintiff claimed discrimination because of her parenting role for her two young children. Witnesses testified at trial that as she was being passed over for promotion after promotion, managers asked questions like: “You’re not going to get pregnant again, are you?” and “Did you get your tubes tied?” Following the trial, the Cleveland Plain Dealer quoted one juror’s explanation for the multi-million dollar verdict: “I think she was very poorly treated because she was pregnant, because she wanted to have a family.”

Ashby Jones, writing at the Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog, quotes Mike Delikat, the chair of Orrick’s employment law practice, who thinks that this verdict is the beginning of a dark age for employers:

“It should clearly cause the employer community to sit up and look at its potential exposure in this area,” said Delikat. “You’re going to see more class-actions filed, and more individual claims of gender and race discrimination. It could be a bonanza.”

Delikat said that the Novartis ruling was a “game changer,” in that it provided a new arrow for plaintiffs lawyers to tuck into their quivers. “How many employers are going to be willing to take a case now that we have a case like this on the books?” he asked. “The case is going to encourage even more defendants to settle—and pay a lot more than they used to.”

While I’m not ready to go as far as Mr. Delikat, there is real danger that lurks for employers in these types of cases. People think that women are entitled to have a career and a family, and juries continue to punish employers that prioritize the former over the latter. If employers have not been paying attention to family responsibility discrimination, they better be now.

For more coverage of this story, I recommend the perspectives of my fellow bloggers: Delaware Employment Law Blog, HR Lawyer’s Blog, Maryland Employment Law Developments, San Antonio Employment Law Blog, UndercoverLawyer, LawMemo Employment Law Blog, and Jottings By An Employer’s Lawyer.

For more on issues and trends in family responsibility discrimination, I recommend a few of my earlier posts:

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