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Sunday, May 23, 2010

Million Dollar Settlements in a Pair of Sexual Harassment Cases

2010 has seen some big-time settlements and judgements in cases involving sexual harassment, gender bias and discrimination. In cases across the United States, judges and juries are sending a clear message that these kinds of behaviors in the workplace will not be tolerated. So it's no wonder many companies and organizations are choosing to pay out large settlements before things get ugly and reputations get destroyed. These settlements not only prevent the victims of sexual harassment from reliving the often traumatic experiences in a courtroom but they can help the accused businesses avoid a public relations nightmare. Two recent cases show that settling out of court in sexual harassment cases can be beneficial for all parties involved.

Earlier this month, an employee at Washington's Western State Hospital, who said she was sexually harassed while on the job, received a nearly $1 million settlement. The Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) and the Washington Federation of State Employees agreed to settle before the case went to trial. The DSHS said that the state will pay $795,000 while the union will pay $200,000. Neither establishment has admitted guilt or wrongdoing in the case, but has agreed upon the total settlement instead of going to trial.

In April, another big settlement in a sexual harassment case was awarded to two female sheriffs in New Jersey. Litigation in the case dragged on for nearly seven years after the two women filed a sexual harassment lawsuit in 2006; the lengthy paper trail led investigators back to March 2002, when the initial complaints were filed in Middlesex County. One day before the case was scheduled to go to trial, the lawyers for the Middlesex County Sheriff's Department decided to settle, paying out $1.59 million to the former sheriffs. Both women complained of a sexually charged and hostile work environment. They claim to have endured years of lewd comments, indecent propositions and lewd behavior from fellow officers and supervisors. Like the previous case, Middlesex has admitted to no wrongdoing despite agreeing to pay the $1.59 million settlement.

    Thursday, May 20, 2010

    Novartis Ordered to Pay $250M to Female Employees

    Pharmaceutical giant Novartis has been ordered by a New York federal court to pay $250 million in punitive damages to a group of 5,000 former and current women employees of the drug company. The award comes after Novartis lost a gender bias lawsuit, producing the second-largest verdict of 2010.

    On Wednesday, a federal jury in Manhattan found Novartis liable for discrimination and ordered it to pay $3.3 million in damages to the 12 women plaintiffs. These women are part of the Novartis' 14,000 U.S. workers. Based in Basel, Switzerland, the company once was heralded as one of the top work environments for women by Working Woman Magazine.

    One by one, women who worked at Novartis testified in court during the five week trial and told a very different story. One woman testified that her male manager suggested she have an abortion when she was pregnant. Other employees testified that they were scrutinized by the company managers while male employees were not. Another woman said she was not included in the "boy's club" type camaraderie that took place at Novartis where executives partied with doctors at strip clubs. Still another woman testified that she was denied access to the flexible hours of the job share program after she requested to work part-time to care for her newly-adopted daughter. Jurors listened to women like Holly Walters, who described in detail being passed over for promotions because they were women. Walters told jurors that she was fired by Novartis even though she had not received any formal complaints about her performance. She says she was let go by the company when she was seven months pregnant after taking a few weeks off of work upon a doctor's recommendation who was concerned about her health. After days in court, the jury was convinced: Novartis was guilty of discrimination.

    Judge Colleen McMahon is expected to make a ruling next week on whether or not Novartis paid women employees less than men. If she decides that it has, the drug giant will be ordered to shell out even more money in compensatory damages. The company, which produces top-selling drugs like Lamisil, Theraflu and Ritalin, was ordered to pay $3.3 million to the twelve plaintiffs earlier this week. The $250 million will go to current and former employees of the company. Novartis also has been ordered by Judge McMahon to undergo thorough and on-going investigations to see if the company has changed its standards and practices in regard to women employees.

      Sunday, May 16, 2010

      Nursing Moms Protected Under New Healthcare Plan

      The hot-button issue of breast feeding breaks at work recently has been pushed into the national spotlight with new legislation and a high-profile lawsuit.

      An obscure provision of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act championed by President Obama requires employers to provide reasonable unpaid breaks for nursing mothers to express milk for their newborns.  No time limit is set on the number of breaks; in companies with 50 or more employees, employers must provide a private space that locks that is not a restroom and not visible to the public. The breaks aren't required to be paid unless required by state law or perhaps by an employee's exempt status. The United States Department of Labor is expected to issue additional regulations to implement this new rule.  Nearly half the states already have in place rules requiring the accommodation of nursing mothers.

      Although from an unlikely source, the protection for breast feeding mothers is long overdue.  A New York woman recently filed a lawsuit alleging that she was fired from her job for breast feeding.  Yardiris Rivera says after giving birth to her daughter Erin, she intended to breast feed as long as she could.  According to Rivera, her employers had other plans.  Rivera alleges her breast feeding created tension at her work place, Medical Imaging of Manhattan. When she returned from maternity leave, her bosses told Rivera to stop breast feeding at work. After she refused to stop, her bosses made it increasingly more difficult for her to pump breast milk while she was at work. Rivera says that she was made to pump milk in a dirty restroom stall that was tiny and unsanitary. As a final blow, Rivera was laid off in February. She contacted an attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union who filed a state and federal complaint against Medical Imaging of Manhattan. The company claims Rivera was part of a layoff that had nothing to do with her breast feeding.

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        Tuesday, May 11, 2010

        Sexual Harassment Case may Jeopardize a Superintendent's Future

        In the southern Los Angeles community of Lynwood, school board officials are still trying to decide if they should hire Edward Velasquez, the current superintendent in the nearby Montebello Unified School District. Board members recognize Velasquez's experience but many are feeling apprehensive. Even normally complacent high school students have shown up at school board meetings to voice their concerns. Why? Edward Velasquez is currently the target of an explicit lawsuit filed against the Montebello Unified School District in March by former employee Irving Bartikofsky. The suit claims that Bartikofsky was the victim of employment discrimination, sexual battery, retaliation, wrongful termination and hostile work environment. Many folks in Lynwood are unsure if they want to be associated with Velasquez and a lawsuit that has the potential to get really ugly.

        According to the lawsuit, working at the Montebello Unified School District as a former administrator in the district's special education department was a nightmare for Irving Bartikofsky. Bartikofsky claims that Velasquez stuck a wet finger in his ear and grabbed his genitals. Reportedly, Velasquez made numerous sexual remarks to Bartikofsky and told him he wanted to kiss him. Bartikofsky formally filed a complaint with the school board who dismissed his allegations and denied him a claim for damages in 2009. To make things worse, the lawsuit alleges that Irving Bartikofsky's job was eliminated after he filed the complaint and was replaced by Velasquez's friend and divorce attorney. Shortly after being fired, Bartikofsky was sent back to working in the classroom. Finally, Bartikofsky's complaint was approved by the Department of Fair Employment and Housing in a letter from June 2009 which stated he had the right to sue the school district. Filed in Los Angeles Superior Court last month, the lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount in damages.

        Meanwhile, the members of the Lynwood school board are expected to make a decision on whether or not they will hire Edward Velasquez as Superintendent in the next few days.

          Sunday, May 09, 2010

          Fired For Having the Cancer Gene?

          No employer would possibly let go an employee with a stellar record simply because of genetic test results. Or would they?

          Pamela Fink of Hartford, Conn., says that's exactly what happened to her. Fink, 39, claims that her supervisors at MXenergy practiced disability discrimination when they first demoted her and eventually dismissed her after she underwent a voluntary double mastectomy. Fink went through the grueling operation at the suggestion of physicians who found that she possesed a gene implicated in breast cancer. Pamela Fink and her two sisters each were tested in 2004 and all three tested positive for the breast cancer gene, BARC2. Fink's sisters were both diagnosed with cancer and both survived after receiving treatment.

          MXenergy, a natural gas and electricity supplier, previously had promoted Pamela Fink, who had received glowing reviews during her time at the company. Fink claims that MXenergy's attitude changed, however, once she informed her bosses of her test results. According to her complaints filed with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission and the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights, she was relieved of her duties as public relations director at MXenergy in March about a year after her double mastectomy. Fink was shocked that the consultant MXenergy had hired while she was in recovery was now her boss when she returned back to work. Her title, most of her responsibilities and her office all had been taken from her after the first surgery. Six weeks after her second mastectomy, Fink was fired and escorted out of the MXenergy office building.

          Both commissions are interested in Fink's case because it is the first known case in the country to be filed based on the Federal Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, which went into effect last November. The law strictly prohibits health care providers as well as employers from practicing discrimination based on a person's genetic information. Fink's lawyer claims that under the new laws, MXenergy's treatment of her was absolutely unlawful. MXenergy denies the allegations and has yet to release a formal statement related to Fink's charges.

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            Thursday, May 06, 2010

            Arizona Immigration Law Spurs Controversy and Lawsuits

            Everyone, it seems, has an opinion about the recently-signed Immigration Law in Arizona.  From Columbian pop sensation Shakira and New York Times columnist Frank Rich to Colorado governor Bill Ritter and Tucson-native, Grammy-award-winning singer Linda Ronstadt, liberal-leaning folks have spoken up against the new policies, which they fear may cause discrimination, racial profiling and unfair employment practices.  Right-winged types, however, are applauding the decision of Governor Jan Brewer for finally handling the rampant illegal immigration policy.  The new law requires state and local law enforcement to question people about their personal immigration status if there is probable cause to suspect they are in the country illegally, therefore making it a state crime to be in the United States illegally.

            Set to take effect this summer, the law is being challenged by a lawsuit filed by 15-year police veteran Martin Escobar, who claims the law is unconstitutional.  Escobar claims that there is no possible legal way for officers to confirm immigration status without impeding investigations and thus violating constitutional rights.  Escobar is an overnight patrol officer in a heavily Latino community in Tucson whose own parents immigrated from Mexico when he was five years old.  According to his lawsuit, the law “is the product of racial bias aimed specifically at Latinos.”  Escobar asserts that questioning people based solely on their skin color, proximity to the border and linguistic characteristics is a sure-fire way to endorse harassment and profiling.  Officer Escobar believes the state law will place Latinos in danger of losing their constitutional rights.

            Governor Brewer has publicly acknowledged that racial profiling is illegal in the United States and not practiced in Arizona. She contends that the new law will not condone racial profiling.

            Martin Escobar’s lawsuit, which was the first of two filed last Thursday, is thought to be the first of many involving Arizona’s new immigration laws. So it looks like we’ll be talking about Arizona for quite some time.

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            http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/2011740327_azimmig30.html

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              Tuesday, May 04, 2010

              Detective Awarded $225,000 in Disability Discrimination Case

              It was English poet, painter and thinker William Blake who once said, "It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend." But it is Baltimore police detective William Blake (no relation) who has to put these words into action. He was awarded $225,000 by a jury last week after suffering disability discrimination doled out by his friends at the police department.

              Detective Blake, 40, suffered a seizure in 1996 while on the job. A proud officer since 1987, Blake returned to his duties and has lived seizure-free since the incident in 1996. It was the Baltimore Police Department who had a hard time forgiving and forgetting Detective Blake's seizure, however. In 2006, a decade after the seizure took place, Blake was ordered to submit to neurological and fitness tests despite other evidence that the officer had been healthy. Col. Terrence B. Sheridan ordered that Blake be given an electroencephalogram to measure electrical activity in the brain along with other tests to determine if he was fit to serve as a police officer. The problem with the ordered fit-tests? They violated the Americans with Disabilities Act which penalizes discrimination against anyone with a disability.

              Blake took his friends at police department to court.  According to the lawsuit, Sheridan's order for the tests came on the heels of a colleague who was forced into retirement by Sheridan because he too had suffered from "potential seizures." That officer, Phillip Crumbacker, challenged Sheridan's decision. Human resources officers also questioned the order for Blake's electroencephalogram as he had already been declared fit for duty.

              A six-day trial and hours of testimony later, a federal jury found that Blake was indeed discriminated against. The detective, who still works for the police department, was awarded $225,000 in damages. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice announced in January that it was conducting a full-scale investigation into whether Baltimore County officials violated the rights of other employees under the ADA.

                Sunday, May 02, 2010

                Women Employees Marked Down by Wal-Mart

                Sometimes evidence of the still-omnipresent glass ceiling pops up in unlikely places, like your local discount store. Massive chains like Wal-Mart are known for great deals and low prices that drives competitors out of business while shoppers flock to pick up incredible values. Thousands of female Wal-Mart employees, however, say the super store also is famous for gender bias and discrimination.

                This week, the largest class-action employment lawsuit filed in U.S. history was granted class action status by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. The 6 to 5 ruling will give more than 1 million former and current female employees of Wal-Mart their day in court. By achieving class-action status, the lawsuit could cost Wal-Mart billions of dollars in damages, legal fees and projected settlement costs.

                The massive discrimination lawsuit claims that women workers of the world's largest retail chain were paid lower and given fewer management opportunities than their male co-workers. The plaintiffs claim that men employed by Wal-Mart systematically earn higher wages and receive promotions despite the sheer number of women Wal-Mart has in its workforce. According to the lawsuit, the company sent a clear message to their female employees: management is for men and not women. Betty Dukes of Pittsburg, Calif., is named as the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. Dukes first filed a suit against Wal-Mart in 2001 with six other Wal-Mart employees who worked at 13 of the company's 3,400 nationwide stores. Dukes and her co-plaintiffs are seeking back pay and punitive damages.

                Wal-Mart adds its name to a shameful list of national businesses accused of gender bias and discrimination in 2010. Banking giant Goldman Sachs, airline Jet Blue and Bank of America are among the companies facing high-profile gender discrimination lawsuits.

                  Thursday, April 29, 2010

                  Guests of Luxury Hotel Demand Whites Only Staff and Ritz-Carlton Allegedly Grants Their Request

                  Five-star hotels and resorts aim to cater to their guests' every whim and desire. From specially-prepared menus and requested thread counts in bedding to demands for exotic flowers and expensive wines, there is nothing luxury hotels won't do to keep their guests happy. So when a British couple requested being served only by white employees who looked and sounded American, The Ritz Carlton of Naples, Fla., allegedly obliged. The request, like all special demands made by guests of the hotel, reportedly was entered into the hotel's computer system last month, stating that the guest and his family were not to be served by "people of color" or staff members with a "foreign accent." Did the Ritz Carlton go too far by agreeing to such a demand?

                  According to Wadner Tranchant, a waiter at the hotel, they did.  Tranchant has filed a discrimination suit against the hotel, claiming the hotel denied him of opportunities and income by not allowing him to serve the family. Tranchant also alleges that the Ritz Carlton created a hostile work environment and that working conditions were "abusive." Of Haitian descent, Tranchant claims in his lawsuit that he "was humiliated, embarrassed, frightened, intimidated, subject to undeserved shame and suffered severe emotional distress" after being prevented from serving the couple when they came to dinner at the Ritz Carlton's Grill Restaurant. Tranchant claims that the Ritz Carlton Naples has a long history of discrimination and is seeking $75,000 in damages.

                  The family, who spent roughly $8,000 during their stay at the Ritz Carlton Naples, won't be returning any time soon. According to the Ritz Carlton, they have been banned from checking into any of the hotels facilities worldwide. The chain is currently reviewing the company's anti-discrimination policies and taking the charges extremely seriously. Spokespeople for Ritz Carlton maintain that while granting their guests' every wish is part of what makes the hotel unique, they would never condone discrimination from their guests or employees.

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