For Discrimination, It Takes More Than Talk

The law has been clear for a long time: an employer’s well-stated anti-discrimination policy is not enough if it exists in name only.  But now a federal jury in New York has rendered a verdict against Novartis that snagged every defense lawyer’s attention.  In a class-action claim for discrimination against women, the jury awarded $250 million in punitive damages.  While the 12 named plaintiffs got $3.3 million in damages for lost pay and emotional distress, the upcoming award for the class of millions of women employed by Novartis could top $1 billion — with a B.

The jury apparently believed that Novartis’ written policy was not enough — it failed to enforce its policy and openly tolerated discrimination by its managers.  Novartis might have had a special program for grooming women managers and it may have fired a sexist manager in response to employee complaints, but the jury didn’t see that as enough.  The 12 women testified to a corporate culture that was insensitive to working women.  For example. while the company had a generous maternity leave policy, many managers pressured women not to actually use their maternity leave.  The closing statement of Novartis’ lawyer may have highlighted the plaintiffs’ argument that Novartis is insensitive to women.  He called them “overly emotional, lying, hysterical women.”  He berated another women for crying on the witness stand.  Finally, he referred to another witness as, no joke, the “little blond that came up here from Texas.”

Dated: August 9, 2010