Two lawsuits -- one on the West Coast and one in the District -- dealt substantial setbacks this week to employers who practice sex discrimination. While victims won on two major fronts, the length of time it takes to litigate those suits would defeat Job. With this kind of speedy relief from injustice, victims could be dead, buried and forgotten and back pay and damages would have to be sent to a P.O. box in heaven.
Or, as occurred in one of the cases, to a victim's estate.
Both class action suits were complicated and involved potentially large numbers of victims. One of the big victories in both cases is that the courts ruled expansively on both the number of women entitled to seek relief and the span of time that discrimination may have existed. And in both cases, the court had previously found that the employers had been guilty of discrimination, which means that the burden of proof is now on the employers to prove that they did not discriminate, rather than the other way around.
There is no way, at present, to determine how many women will come forward in each case to make a claim or how much in damages they could receive. Millions of dollars and perhaps as much as hundreds of millions could be awarded.
The first case involves the U.S. Information Agency and it breaks some ground in that the court found that applicants for six categories of jobs had been discriminated against. Bruce Fredrickson, who litigated the case against USIA, says that the more typical class-action suits brought in the District have been on behalf of employees rather than rejected job applicants.
The original suit filed in 1977 had also included charges of sex discrimination in promotions of employees, but USIA won that round at the lower court and appeals level. The appeals court, however, sent the case on behalf of applicants back to the lower court, and U.S. District Judge Charles R. Richey ruled in November 1984 that the agency had discriminated against female job applicants. A trial was held in January 1987 to determine the appropriate remedies, and in his decision this week Richey ruled that the agency was required to notify every unsuccessful applicant for those jobs between 1974 and 1984 that they may be entitled to back pay and preferential hiring status. He estimated that more than 4,400 people may be entitled to relief.
The agency will have to prove that it didn't hire someone for reasons other than discrimination, Richey ruled. USIA destroyed applications made before 1982. "Because it is impossible to recreate the process that led to rejection of a plaintiff's employment application," Richey ruled, any doubt must be resolved "against the proven discriminator rather than the innocent." The agency is responsible for "a make-whole monetary award."
The second case involves a settlement reached between the State Farm Insurance Co. in California and thousands of its female employees who were denied jobs as insurance sales agents over a 13-year period ending last December. The company has agreed to put between $100 million and $300 million into a pool to reimburse the women and Guy Saperstein, the Oakland lawyer who handled the case, said it could be the largest settlement ever under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. That claim was disputed by a State Farm attorney who said the damages would total less than $100 million.
The agreement provides for almost $1.3 million in damages to be divided among two women who brought the case and the estate of the third woman who brought the case who died in 1983.
One of the plaintiffs, Muriel Kraszewski of Long Beach, Calif., said she was told she had to have a college education (which most male salesmen didn't have), would have to move, and that her husband had too much control over her. She said the male agents didn't have to move and company officials had never met her husband. Kraszewski had been a secretary and office manager and had performed most of the functions of an agent. Lawyers said those jobs frequently pay more than $75,000 a year and she currently makes more than $500,000 a year with another insurance company, which shows among other things that discrimination cost State Farm a pretty good agent.
Sex discrimination cases involving large groups of women continue to take painfully long to adjudicate. They remain difficult to prove, Fredrickson said. But, he said, "the suits are getting a lot more acceptance in society."
And, as these two cases demonstrate, they seem to be getting a lot more acceptance in the courts. The cost of discrimination to employers is going higher and higher.