The Daily Journal, March 19, 2015 – Trio Of Major Suits Allege Rampant Workplace Discrimination

With workplace sexism a hot topic thanks to the Ellen Pao trial, plaintiffs’ attorneys launched three more blockbuster gender discrimination suits against science and technology giants.

A putative class action filed in the Central District of California on Wednesday accuses Valencia’s Boston Scientific Neuromodulation Corp., a maker of medical devices to ease spinal pain, of “substantial gender-based disparities in compensation and advancement,” plus a bawdy workplace culture of sexist remarks and behavior. Fritter et al v. Boston Scientific Neuromodulation Corporation, CV15-01988 (C.D. Cal., filed March 18, 2015).

The same firm, Sanford Heisler Kimpel LLP, filed a separate class action Tuesday in New York accusing pharmaceutical giant Novartis Corp. of persisting with a glass ceiling for women employees despite a past gender discrimination class action – filed by the same firm – that settled for $152.5 million in 2010. Dickerson et al. v. Novartis Corp. et al., CV15-1980 (S.D. N.Y., filed March 17, 2015).

Earlier this week, Pao’s own lawyer Theresa M. Lawless sued on behalf of Chia Hong in state court charging Facebook Inc. with a “pattern and practice of harassment” and firing Hong after she complained of mistreatment. Hong v. Facebook Inc., CV15532943 (San Mateo Super. Ct., filed March 16, 2015).

Lawyers involved in the suits say their cases bear no relation to Pao, but the actions could indicate a burgeoning interest in gender complaints in new industries.

Felicia M. Medina, a partner at Sanford Heisler and lead lawyer in the Boston Scientific case, said that the Pao trial was a coincidental footnote, noting her firm’s “long history of filing gender discrimination cases,” particularly against biotech companies.

Lawless too said that her suit was not spurred by the trial, saying, “This case has been around even before I got involved in the Pao matter.”

In the Facebook complaint, Hong claims she was “belittled at work” by, for example, serving drinks to her male colleagues even though she rose to the title of technology partner, and then retaliated against after complaining to human resources.

In a statement on Wednesday, a Facebook spokesperson emailed, “In this case we have substantive disagreement on the facts, and we believe the record shows the employee was treated fairly.”

Spencer Hamer, an employment defense lawyer at Michelman & Robinson LLP not involved in the cases, said that there are clear similarities between the Pao and Facebook complaints, adding that more complaints against Silicon Valley firms are to be expected if a San Francisco jury finds for Pao.

The Boston Scientific and Novartis cases face a wholly different hurdle of whether the plaintiffs can get class certification.

“The allegations are all very detailed and they make sense with individual claims, but it might be hard to show centralized decision-making,” Hamer said, a reference to what is likely needed to secure class certification after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Wal-Mart Stores v. Dukes, which threw out a massive discrimination case involving potentially 1.5 million women.

Named plaintiffs Denise Fritter and Maria Korsgaard chronicle how Boston Scientific allegedly passed them over in favor of male colleagues for top sales representative positions and were also subject to boorish remarks regarding their appearance as well as physical harassment. The suit additionally indicates that woman do not helm the 500-employee company’s top leadership positions.

The Novartis complaint alleges that, particularly in the company’s Alcon Laboratories Inc. division, “there is no indication that any effective female management initiatives have been rolled out” since the 2011 lawsuit settlements.

Messages left with Boston Scientific and Novartis were not returned.

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