The women – all current or former employees – are seeking $250 million in damages for claims that the drug maker allowed discriminatory and disparate pay and promotion policies and had a hostile work environment – referred to as a ‘boys’ club’ by the women.
In the court notes, the plaintiffs assert that senior leaders at Merck make personnel decisions based on unlawful stereotypes that men are ‘breadwinners’ and responsible for financially supporting their families, while women should ‘stay at home’ with children. They also claim that Merck has systematically paid female sales representatives, particularly those who were, are or had been pregnant, less than similarly situated male employees in terms of basic pay, pay rises and bonuses. Further, they state that Merck retaliates against women who suffer the effects of this discrimination and raise complaints.
Plaintiff Kandice Bross claims her manager admitted her salary ‘stuck out like a sore thumb’ relative to the salaries of other reps in her region.
In his ruling, US District Court Judge Joel Pisano decided the women made ‘plausible’ arguments for the case to proceed and determine whether discrimination took place. He also accused Merck of being ‘premature’ in seeking to dismiss the case.
Merck said in a statement: ‘We are disappointed in the court’s decision, but remain confident that this case lacks merit. Merck will continue to vigorously defend itself, and remains fully committed to providing equal employment opportunities for all employees. Merck has a strong anti-discrimination policy that prohibits discrimination on the basis of characteristics, such as gender, pregnancy, race, age, disability and sexual orientation.’
Several other such lawsuits have been filed against pharma companies in recent years, notably the 2010 case against Novartis in which it was forced to pay $253 million in compensatory and punitive damages.