WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court has upheld a sex discrimination ruling against a Silver Spring company that demoted a top-performing woman worker because of her gender.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a published opinion Wednesday that StorageTek can be ordered to pay punitive damages to Adrienne Corti, even if jurors did not award her compensatory damages first.
The circuit court said that “the `familiar tort mantra’ that punitive damages may not be assessed in the absence of compensatory damages” did not apply in this case, because the district court awarded Corti $410,974.63 in back pay, which serves “a similar purpose as compensatory damage awards.”
Corti, reached Thursday at her Centreville, Va., home, said she was “very pleased ” with the ruling. She declined further comment until she could speak with her attorney, Patricia Smith, who was out of town Thursday.
Lawyers for StorageTek also declined comment until they had a chance to see the opinion and talk to their clients.
The case began in 1993, when Corti was hired as one of three financial services managers at the Silver Spring office of Storage Technology Corp., a Colorado-based company that makes and sells storage devices for mainframe and network computer systems.
According to court documents, Corti met her quota her first year, was ranked the top financial services manager in the Mid-Atlantic region in 1994 and was named top manager in the nation in 1995.
But she was told in late 1995 that her position had been eliminated because of downsizing. She was told that her only option, besides leaving the company, was to take a demotion to a job as a customer service sales representative, which she did.
The other two financial service managers, who were allowed to keep their jobs, were men who rarely met their quotas, the court said. It was only later that Corti learned that her former job had been given to a superior who had written a poor evaluation of her performance.
Corti was eventually fired from her lower-ranking job for poor performance.
But Corti’s problems at the company began long before her demotion. While working as a financial services manager, she reported to Edwin Hartman, a district manager who admitted to Corti he had never worked with a woman equal and was used to having women work below him, the documents say.
Hartman failed to keep Corti informed about important meetings and key account information, the documents say. She was also excluded from social activities at the company. After one off-site function, when some of the employees went to play golf, Hartman told Corti and another woman sales representative that they should go shopping because golf was a “guy thing.”
Corti sued StorageTek in 1997 for sex discrimination under the Civil Rights Act. A district court jury returned a verdict against StorageTek in January 2001, awarding Corti $100,000 in punitive damages, but no compensatory damages. The judge in the case had told the jury that it was up to him, not the jurors, to award back pay.
The appeals court also rejected StorageTek’s claim that Corti’s case should have been dismissed for failure to prove that the company’s reason for her demotion, downsizing, was false.
The court said that Corti need not prove that the downsizing was false, but need only show that it was a pretext to demote her based on her gender.