WASHINGTON- A U.S. District Court judge has awarded almost $115,000 plus legal fees to a scientist who claims Hughes STX Corp. fired her from its Lanham facility after seven years because of her age.
Xiao-Yue Gu, 56, had already received $150,000 in back pay from Hughes and was seeking more than $1.1 million in “front pay” — salary she claimed she would have earned over her career at the firm had she not been fired.
Even though the district court awarded Gu only a fraction of the front pay she was seeking, the Brighton, Mass., physicist said she was pleased.
“I feel great. I feel I made the right decision in the first place to immigrate to this country,” said Gu, who left China in 1981 to pursue a doctorate at Boston College.
“There is a difference between China and the United States,” she said. “You can even sue the. . .government. But in China, people do not have rights like that.”
Officials at Raytheon Co., which merged with the division of Hughes that Gu worked for, declined to comment on Monday’s ruling.
Gu was fired in 1996 when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration reduced funding for the Ozone Project she had worked on since earning her doctorate in 1989. Hughes was told to eliminate one of the 12 or 13 employees who generally worked on the project, according to court documents.
Gu said she was shocked by her firing.
“I made a great contribution to NASA’s program, and all of a sudden I was laid off,” she said. “I couldn’t think of anything else.”
After searching for a year for another research position, Gu settled for two part-time teaching jobs in Massachusetts. She sued in December 1998, claiming Hughes fired her, despite years of positive performance appraisals, because she was the oldest scientist in her group.
Hughes countered that Gu’s skills were not up to date and that she possessed only three out of 14 “skills sets” needed for her job, according to court documents.
But in August, Hughes offered her $150,000 in back pay and damages. When she accepted, the company also offered to rehire her. She refused.
That offer is at the center of the current case.
If made in good faith, such an offer typically protects an employer from liability for front pay. But District Judge Alexander Williams Jr. noted that Hughes made the offer four years after firing Gu and after having invited her former bosses “to vilify her performance.”
The judge called Hughes’ employment offer “vague, and potentially misleading,” because the company failed to provide details about salary, title or type of work. He added that the “suspicious circumstances of its tender” made Gu’s rejection reasonable, making front pay preferable to reinstatement.
Williams said Gu has excellent credentials and a strong work ethic, but said she would not likely be at Hughes for the additional 15 years she anticipated. He awarded her four years of front pay — which he calculated at $114,696.60 — and another $131,905 in legal fees and costs.
Gu’s attorney, Jeffrey Bernbach, said the win is unusual in the U.S. 4th Judicial Circuit, which includes federal courts in Maryland. He said the circuit is “notoriously” unfriendly to plaintiffs bringing discrimination claims.
“Usually the plaintiffs don’t win,” Bernbach said. “It’s a steep mountain to climb.”
Gu said life has been tough since she was fired. Last year, she taught six different courses at three colleges, and “it almost killed me.” But Monday’s win affirms her trust in the U.S. justice system.
In this country, “people are not scared,” she said. “In China, people are scared. . .they cannot speak.”