A class-action lawsuit alleging that Novartis Pharmaceuticals practised gender discrimination against female employees is set to go to trial on Wednesday in federal court in New York.
The complaint seeks at least $200 million (Rs888 crore) in damages on behalf of around 5,600 female sales employees.
The suit alleges that Novartis, the US subsidiary of the Swiss drug company, discriminated against women in pay and promotions—especially women who became pregnant. Women in sales positions at the company received an average of $105 a month less than men in comparable jobs from 2002 through 2007, according to their lawyers.
Novartis denies the claims and is proud of its record in hiring and promoting women, Amy L. Bess, a lawyer for the company, said on Tuesday. She noted that Novartis had been cited by Working Mother magazine as one of the 100 best companies in the nation for 10 years in a row, through 2009.
David W. Sanford, the lead lawyer for the 17 current and former Novartis workers who filed the suit in 2004, said Novartis continues to routinely discriminate against women.
Sanford said the case was one of the largest class-action discrimination lawsuits to ever reach trial, based on the size of the class. The trial is scheduled to last five weeks. Most such cases are settled before trial.
Judge Gerard E. Lynch, who was then on the US district court, certified the Novartis class action in 2007. Lynch is now a federal appellate judge. In October, district judge Colleen McMahon denied Novartis’ motion for partial summary judgement.
Fourteen women from across the country will testify, Sanford said. At least 30 former Novartis employees have filed affidavits.
The plaintiffs as a class are seeking $54 million in back pay, plus compensatory and punitive damages, he said.
One woman’s affidavit states that her Novartis manager told her he preferred not to hire young women, saying, “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes flex time and a baby carriage.”
Another, who is scheduled to be the second to testify, alleges she was encouraged to get an abortion.
Bess, the Novartis lawyer, said the firm looked forward to telling its story in court. Novartis will call as witnesses a number of women sales workers who were automatically part of the class action, but had “incredibly positive” experiences at the company while raising families, she said.
Asked whether any of the men accused of discrimination had been disciplined, Bess said Novartis cannot talk about personnel practices, but investigated every complaint thoroughly and took corrective action where warranted.
©2010/THE NEW YORK TIMES