The University of California has been ordered to pay $1.58 million to a former UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica employee who was racially harassed by her co-workers.
A Los Angeles Superior Court jury determined that Nicole Birden, an 48-year-old African-American woman who worked as a phlebotomist at the medical center from 2015 to 2016, was subjected to discrimination that her supervisors did not address, according a press release from her attorney.
Birden said her co-workers addressed her using the n-word and made disparaging remarks about her skin color and racially stereotyped her in her Spanish. She said they also harassed her by phone during work hours and tampered with blood specimens she had drawn.
“Comments were made around her in Spanish that were derogatory,” said Birden’s attorney, V. James DeSimone. “They referred to her as dark-skinned, a liar and lazy.”
Birden was suddenly fired in 2016, despite the fact that her supervisors had never before taken disciplinary action against her. The UC’s attorney, Stephen Ronk, said Birden was fired because she had a clear pattern of performance issues.
“The UC Regents wanted to make this case about Ms. Birden’s performance,” DeSimone said in a statement. “The evidence at trial, however, showed Ms. Birden was an excellent phlebotomist with no complaints from patients, nurses or doctors.”
The superior court jury rejected DeSimone’s claim that Birden was fired because of her race, but ordered the UC to award her $190,000 for past economic losses, $86,000 for future economic losses, $500,000 for past emotional distress and mental harm, and $800,000 for future emotional distress and mental harm.
“We are thankful that a diverse Los Angeles jury could come together and give Ms. Birden the justice she deserved after a hard fought jury trial,” DeSimone said in a statement.
UCLA Health issued a statement that it is disappointed with the verdict, reviewing the decision and considering all available options. The statement also encouraged employees to report any workplace concerns so they can be reviewed and addressed.
“UCLA Health is committed to maintaining a workplace free from discrimination, harassment and retaliation of any kind,” said spokesperson Phil Hampton. “Ensuring a respectful and inclusive environment is essential to the University’s mission.”
DeSimone said he believes that a culture of racial discrimination still exists at UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica. Another discrimination case is in the works, he added.
“It’s very much still a concern of current employees,” he said.