Ex-workers sue Alcon, allege gender and pay bias

Alcon headquarters in Fort Worth.
Alcon headquarters in Fort Worth. Star-Telegram archives

Two female former employees at Fort Worth-based Alcon Laboratories are suing the company and its parent, Novartis, saying they were routinely denied promotions and did not receive pay equal to their male counterparts because of their gender.

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in New York, Elyse Dickerson and Susan Orr say Alcon’s male senior leaders “foster a ‘boys’ club’” atmosphere that “is hostile to women and their advancement.”

The lawsuit says a current male executive has never been disciplined even though he hired prostitutes for doctors who serve as consultants for the company to promote Alcon’s products. But a female director was forced to quit after the company would not be flexible about child-care issues, the suit says.

Dickerson is seeking $10 million and her job back under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, alleging pay discrimination, illegal retaliation and unlawful discharge.

Orr is seeking $100 million for herself and other women who held director-level positions at Alcon and who could join the lawsuit. She alleges that Novartis and Alcon violated the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, as amended by the Equal Pay Act of 1963, for equal pay for equal work. She, too, is suing for pay discrimination.

In August, Dickerson filed a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In January, the EEOC issued her a right-to-sue letter.

“For years, the company paid them less than similarly-situated men, discriminated against them in assignments and other career-enhancing opportunities, and denied them promotions in favor of similarly-situated men,” the suit says.

In a statement, Alcon spokeswoman Elizabeth Harness Murphy said that the company is aware of the lawsuit but that it “would be inappropriate” to comment.

“Alcon disagrees with the allegations in the lawsuit,” she said. “The company is deeply committed to equal employment opportunity for all employees and to preventing discrimination.”

The suit comes nearly five years after pharmaceutical giant Novartis, a Swiss company whose U.S. headquarters are in New York, was ordered to pay $253 million in a gender discrimination suit against another division. The company agreed to settle the case for about $175 million.

Novartis acquired Alcon, a producer of eye-care surgical products and pharmaceuticals, in 2011.

“As a result of our 2010 verdict, Novartis has done great things to improve the workplace conditions at Novartis Pharmaceuticals,” said David Sanford, chairman of the law firm Sanford Heisler Kimpel, who is representing the women. “But as this case demonstrates, there is considerable work to be done to ensure that female employees in the Alcon division receive equal treatment. Now it’s time for the Alcon division to receive the same degree of oversight.”

Dickerson, who lives in Fort Worth, worked at Alcon from 2002 until her “retaliatory termination” on Jan. 2. At that time, she was a global director for pharmaceuticals, managing one of the company’s largest product portfolios.

According to the lawsuit, then-CEO Cary Rayment told Dickerson that her career at Alcon would be limited because she “had a husband with a career”; that a performance rating was reduced because she had been on maternity leave; and that she was held down pay levels “until she had proven herself.”

Dickerson was let go two weeks before a majority of her Novartis stock grants, worth more than $750,000, were scheduled to vest and when she was on federally protected medical leave, the suit says. The firing also came after Dickerson questioned now-retired Alcon division head Kevin Buehler during a global webcast about what he and other senior managers were doing to change the gender gap at Alcon, the suit says.

Orr, a research scientist from 1997 until April 2014, when she resigned, led Alcon’s acquisition of a drug that is projected to become its highest-grossing ever. In the suit, she alleges that she was repeatedly denied and excluded from advancement opportunities — positions that were given to male employees “who were no more, and often less, qualified.”

Women make up less than 15 percent of vice presidents and senior directors at Alcon, located off Interstate 35 and Altamesa Boulevard in south Fort Worth, according to the suit.

Moreover, male directors are not disciplined but rather promoted when they practice discriminatory actions, the suit says. Among the allegations:

▪ A male vice president was promoted to the executive team after he told a female director she was not committed to her job because she asked for flexibility to deal with child-care issues, forcing the woman to quit her job.

▪ A current executive team member arranged on multiple occasions for prostitutes to meet with doctors who work with the company, but he has never been demoted or disciplined.

▪ Another executive team member vetoed the hiring of an openly gay person for a director-level job, saying the company was “not ready for that.”

▪ A current vice president told a female subordinate that her work was “so good it gave [him] a woody.”

▪ A male senior marketing manager was not fired after he undid his belt buckle in a meeting and remarked, “Let me introduce you to the newest member of the team.”

Alexandra Harwin, a Sanford Heisler Kimpel lawyer also working on the case, said the lawyers will ask the judge for permission to send notices about the suit to other female director-level employees who might have faced discrimination.

“We don’t know yet how many women will fall into those categories,” Harwin said.

Sandra Baker, 817-390-7727

Twitter: @SandraBakerFWST