$531 Million Awarded in 23-Year-Old Federal Gender Suit

July 7, 2008 - 8:02 PM

(CNSNews.com) - Eleven hundred women who were denied jobs with a federal agency - the US Information Agency - won $508 million plus nearly $23 million in back pay and interest from the government on Wednesday in the largest-ever settlement of a federal sex discrimination case.

The agreement, which, according to wire service reports, still requires approval from a federal judge, comes 23 years after the first woman, then-29-year-old Carolee Brady Hartman, accused the now-defunct US Information Agency and its broadcast branch, the Voice of America, of turning her down for a job as a writer because of her gender. She filed the lawsuit in 1977.

"I went for a job interview and the man who was interviewing me told me that he was not going to hire me because I was a woman," said Brady, today a 52-year-old divorced social worker living in San Francisco. "At the time, I just didn't know how to respond. Now, I have a way of responding, and this is the victory that we all celebrate today. It is a delicious victory."

In addition to the $508 million that must be paid to the women -- approximately $450,000 apiece before taxes -- the federal government must also give them nearly $23 million in back pay and interest and pay their attorneys' fees. Those fees will be at least $12 million because the lawyers intend to bill the government for approximately 90,000 hours of work over the 23 years.

"The message has to be sent to the United States government, to employers in this country, and to employers around the world: The cost of discrimination is high. If you compound that with delay, the cost of discrimination is enormous," said Bruce Fredrickson, the women's lead attorney.

The Justice Department said that, although there have been larger settlements involving other forms of discrimination, this was the largest federal sex discrimination case since the Civil Rights Act was signed into law in 1964.

In the end, after many years of insisting on trying each individual case in the courts, even though the suit had been certified as a class-action case, government lawyers decided to settle to save money; they had already lost 46 of the 48 cases that had gone to trial, with each woman winning about $500,000. Those 46 women also will share in Wednesday's settlement.

"'We took into account the prior court decisions of the trial and appellate courts ..., the results of the individual class members' hearings that had been conducted to date as well as our independent projections of the likely results of the remaining hearings in the absence of a settlement,'' said Wilma A Lewis, US attorney of the District of Columbia.

The government had been dealt a series of legal blows over the years. In 1984, the US District Court in Washington found the government guilty of sex discrimination. Since then, the government filed and lost two appeals and was denied a hearing by the Supreme Court.

The women applied for jobs as international radio broadcasters, radio broadcast or electronic technicians, writers and editors, and production specialists at the agency and the Voice of America between early October 1974 and mid-November 1984.

Many of the women who were denied jobs had been experienced broadcasters from national and international news outlets, qualified writers and reporters, or experienced technicians and producers for network television and radio.

"This is one of the happiest days of my life. We have won the war, a just war," said Jahanara Hasan, who was rejected for a position broadcasting to the people of her native Bangladesh in favor of a less qualified man. "The United States, being one of the greatest advocates of human rights, should not allow its officials to bring dishonor to the country."

Today, Hasan, 56, works in Washington as the assistant to the ambassador from Bangladesh.

Many of the women also were awarded job relief and federal government retirement accounts.

The USIA was integrated with the State Department last October.

Attorney Fredrickson said the trials revealed that the agency regularly manipulated the hiring process to exclude women. The plaintiffs alleged that the agency "rigged the system" in favor of men and in some cases, resorted to test fraud, altering test scores, and destroying personnel and test files.

One of the women was told, "A woman's place is at the stove, not on the air," Fredrickson said.

Lewis, the US attorney, said the large settlement acknowledges the length of time involved, the relatively high-paying positions at issue, the number of women, and the accrual of interest.

The lawsuit started so long ago, in fact, that Fredrickson had taken it as his first case out of law school. "We've been fighting for 23 years and it's literally my very first case. I hope the next one is going to be shorter," he said.