Novartis, Alcon face gender discrimination suit

March 19, 2015

Two former Alcon employees have filed a $110 million lawsuit against Alcon and its parent company, Novartis, claiming the companies discriminated against the employees based on their gender.

Fort Worth, TX-Two former Alcon employees have filed a $110 million lawsuit, including a class action suit, against Alcon and its parent company, Novartis, claiming the companies discriminated against the employees based on their gender.

The lawsuit claims that Alcon paid the plaintiffs less than their male counterparts, discriminated against them in assignments, and denied them promotions in favor of men who were similarly situated. One of the plaintiffs is also claiming she was retaliated against after she repeatedly complained about an environment that was discriminatory toward women. 

“Alcon is aware that two former employees have filed a lawsuit alleging gender discrimination,” says Elizabeth Murphy, director of Global External Communications at Alcon. “Alcon disputes these allegations and will vigorously defend itself in litigation.”

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Details of the case

Elyse Dickerson worked for the company from March 2002 until January 2, 2015, when she was terminated from the company. She started as an associate product manager and eventually became Alcon’s first female global director for pharmaceuticals in 2010, according to the lawsuit.

Dickerson is suing to be reinstated to her job; to enjoin what the lawsuit describes as the company’s discriminatory policies, practices, and procedures; and for damages of $10 million.  

She claims Alcon senior management marginalized and discriminated against her because of her gender, including paying her less than her male peers and not giving her a fair performance rating.

“Ms. Dickerson wanted to continue and rise the ranks at Alcon,” says Alexandra Harwin, an attorney with Sandford Heisler Kimpel, LLP, representing the plaintiffs in this case, speaking exclusively to Optometry Times. “She didn’t want to be forced to resign due to gender discrimination. She wanted to effect change in Novartis’s Alcon division.”

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In August 2014, Dickerson filed a charge of discrimination-both individual and class-wide-with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). After she filed, the lawsuit claims the Novartis Business Practices Office launched an investigation into Dickerson.

“It’s a formal grievance, which is a prerequisite to filing a suit under federal law called Title VII,” says Harmin. “When someone files a charge, the company is informed and warned against taking retaliatory action against the employee who complained. Novartis did not comply and commenced a sham investigation.”

In December 2014, Dickerson went on medical leave because she claims she experiencing stress and anxiety due to the discrimination. The medical leave was scheduled to last until February 1, 2015, but she was terminated from her position on January 2, 2015.

Murphy says Dickerson was fired for what she describes as serious violations of company policy.

“The company does not tolerate activities which are not in compliance with the company’s principles for ethical business conduct. When inappropriate activities are identified, we take appropriate action, including terminating employment when necessary,” she says.

But Dickerson’s lawyer disputes those claims.

“The reality is that there were no ethical violations,” says Harwin. “It’s convoluted. “There were no legitimate grounds for terminating Ms. Dickerson. The timing of this is very notable,” she says.

According to the lawsuit, Dickerson was terminated two weeks before the majority of her Novartis stock grants, worth approximately $750,000, were scheduled to vest.

Next: Dr. Orr's case 

 

The second plaintiff, Susan Orr, OD, worked for Alcon from October 1997 until she resigned on April 2, 2014. She started as a senior clinical research associate and eventually became global director for new product and product strategy in the company’s commercial division.

Dr. Orr is suing to recover damages of $100 million for herself and for the collective action class-including all female employees who are, have been, or will be employed by Alcon in director-level positions, including assistant director, associate director, director, senior director, and global director during the liability period. The lawsuit seeks to represent all female directors who were paid less than male employees for doing similar work.

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“We’ve received numerous calls from current and former employees from Alcon who are interested in participating in this lawsuit-more than two dozen,” Harwin says. “The outpouring of interest and support for the lawsuit from current and former employees is indicative of just how serious a problem Alcon and Novartis have in their treatment of women.”

Dr. Orr also claims Alcon senior management marginalized and discriminated against her because of her gender.

“The Company repeatedly denied Dr. Orr opportunities for advancement within the Alcon division, excluding her from consideration for numerous promotions and systematically promoting male employees who were no more, and often less, qualified than Dr. Orr,” the lawsuit states.

According to the lawsuit, after moving into the commercial division, Dr. Orr felt she was not going to have opportunities for advancement with Alcon. She resigned in April 2014 and obtained a position at a different pharmaceutical company.

To read the entire lawsuit, click here.

Next: Gender discrimination accusations in big pharma

 

Gender discrimination accusations in big pharma

This case comes just five years after 5,600 female sales representatives for Novartis brought a class action suit against the company in the largest gender discrimination case to go to verdict. According to the New York Times, the company was ordered to pay $250 million in damages.

Alcon is just one of several major pharmaceutical companies that have been accused of gender discrimination-Forest Laboratories (now owned by Actavis), Daiichi Sankyo, and Merck have all faced lawsuits in the last few years.

Wall Street Journal writer Ed Silverman recently wrote that lawsuits have emerged as the pharmaceutical industry cut tens of thousands of jobs over the past decade. Silverman says it’s possible the cutbacks have been done in ways that left the companies open to discrimination charges.

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But Murphy says Alcon is deeply committed to equal employment opportunity for all employees and to preventing discrimination.

“We value our associates and are committed to their fair and equitable treatment in all aspects of employment, including compensation,” Murphy says.

Murphy says Alcon will not comment further while the litigation is ongoing. 

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