by Braden Campbell, Senior Reporter, Law360.com
Jackson National Life Insurance Company has agreed to pay $20.5 million to end a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission suit alleging black female workers were underpaid, sexually harassed and called “street walkers,” the agency said Thursday.
The workplace bias watchdog’s announcement comes two days after District of Colorado Judge Philip Brimmer approved a consent decree between the EEOC and the insurer ending the case, which accused Jackson of violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. In addition to the payout, the deal requires Jackson to take steps to prevent future race- and sex-based harassment, including designating an internal compliance monitor and hiring a consultant to review its policies.
“We are gratified that this decree will provide significant compensation to former Jackson employees whose careers were thwarted by these discriminatory practices,” said EEOC Phoenix regional attorney Mary Jo O’Neill, whose office brought the suit with the agency’s Denver branch. “These former employees have been very brave to stand up for their rights.”
The agency brought the suit in September 2016 on behalf of 21 workers in Jackson’s Denver and Nashville offices. The agency alleged the company tolerated a hostile work environment that included workers calling black colleagues “lazy,” throwing stress balls at them and posting racially demeaning cartoons. The agency also claimed a manager referred to black female workers as “resident street walkers” and that women were subject to sexual harassment that included leering and at least one unwanted kiss.
Jackson also underpaid these workers and passed them over for promotions in favor of less-qualified white men, the agency said. And when workers complained, Jackson retaliated against them, including by firing a white vice president who refused to write up two black women who had complained, the agency said.
“Employers should bear in mind that retaliation is as illegal as race and sex discrimination,” EEOC Denver office head Amy Burkholder said.
Several of the workers joined the suit, making similar accusations to the EEOC’s in an intervenor complaint. They allege Jackson openly denied them advancement because of their race and gender and that they were subject to cruel and demeaning “pranks,” with white colleagues placing sharp objects on one black worker’s seat and waiting for him to sit down.
Lohf Shaiman Jacobs Hyman & Feiger PC attorney Justin Plaskov, who represents the intervening workers, said he is “extremely happy” for them and “extremely proud” of their courage and patience.
“The events that led to the lawsuit occurred in 2009 and 2010, largely, so they’ve been on quite a journey and we’re happy to get this result for them,” he said.
The $20.5 million deal is the largest ever secured by the EEOC’s Phoenix and Denver offices, the agency said. The deal also enjoins Jackson from engaging in future discrimination and requires that it train workers on their obligations. The company’s managers and supervisors will also be rated on their compliance with the law going forward, the agency said.
A representative for Jackson noted the decree does not include a finding of wrongdoing but said the company is “humbled” and recognizes that “the associates who made claims in this case believe they were not treated fairly or in a way that aligns with Jackson’s core values.”
“This is concerning to us, as it is not consistent with who we strive to be,” the representative said. “This experience provides an opportunity to re-affirm our commitment to our core values, enhance our policies and practices, and continue to make Jackson a great place to work.”
Jackson is represented by Gerald Maatman, Christopher DeGroff, Christina Janice, Andrew Scroggins and Alex Karasik of Seyfarth Shaw LLP.
The EEOC is represented in-house by Michael Imdieke, Loretta Medina and Mary Jo O’Neill.
The workers who intervened are represented by Justin Plaskov and Lynn Feiger of Lohf Shaiman Jacobs Hyman & Feiger PC and Brian Moore of Jester Gibson & Moore LLP.
The case is EEOC et al. v. Jackson National Life Insurance Company et al., case number 1:16-cv-02472, before the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado.