Last month, a former physician at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Medical Center prevailed on state law claims of sex discrimination and retaliation, for which the jury awarded $13 million, while it found against her on her claim of age discrimination. This significant award is a welcome indication that jurors are willing to take gender discrimination seriously.
About the UCLA Medical Center Discrimination Case
Lauren Pinter-Brown was an oncologist at UCLA Medical Center, where she directed the lymphoma program. Throughout her 10 years of employment there, she experienced hostility and disparate treatment from her male colleagues, including comments such as calling her an “angry woman” and “diva,” and telling her “everybody hates you” and “your job is not to boss the guys around.” She also claimed she made as much as $250,000 less than her male counterparts. She was also subjected to harsher comments and criticism of her work than her male colleagues.
After an angry exchange with a subordinate physician that left her feeling threatened and unsafe, Dr. Pinter-Brown filed both oral and written complaints about the way she was treated but claimed the university did not address her concerns. Following her complaints, Dr. Pinter-Brown was targeted with audits and criticism of her clinical trials, and even had her research privileges temporarily suspended. Dr. Pinter-Brown contended that the working conditions were so intolerable that she was forced to seek employment at UC Irvine, a different medical facility also under the purview of the Board of Regents of the University of California.
The Jury’s Decision
The jury found that the university had discriminated against Dr. Pinter-Brown because of her sex and retaliated against her because of her complaints. The jury awarded $13 million in damages: about $3 million in past and future economic damages and about $10 million in noneconomic losses, which typically include damages such as emotional distress and reputational harm.
Dr. Pinter-Brown brought suit under California’s anti-discrimination law, which does not limit monetary remedies. Many states have similar anti-discrimination provisions that do not limit remedies. Successful claims under Title VII, by contrast, are subject to statutory caps based on the size of the employer with a maximum of $300,000 for compensatory and punitive damages. Title IX, another federal law which can apply to sex discrimination against employees of federally funded educational institutions, does not place the same caps on punitive and compensatory damages.
Sex Discrimination in the Spotlight
This sizable award may also be an early indication that the momentum of the “#MeToo” movement is a rising tide that has brought to the fore not only sexual harassment, but also other forms of workplace sex discrimination, including disparate treatment. For example, a recent survey of human resources executives revealed that nearly half of the companies surveyed were reviewing their compensation policies to guarantee pay parity among genders in light of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, which focused on sexual harassment and assault. At the legislative level, Washington recently passed a series of bills not only shoring up protection for sexual harassment victims, but updating the state’s 1943 equal pay law. The new law bans pay secrecy policies and expands protection by prohibiting gender discrimination in offering career advancement opportunities.
These examples indicate that the public discourse around workplace sexual harassment has shed new light on other forms of unequal treatment women face in the workplace. At a time when employment attorneys have seen a significant uptick in workplace sexual harassment reports and those cases are settling for higher amounts, it is noteworthy that Dr. Pinter-Brown’s jury award seems to reflect a reinvigorated public sentiment against all forms of sex-based harassment and discrimination.