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Merck must face gender-bias claims from former exec

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More discrimination against women in Big Pharma? It's now Merck's ($MRK) turn to face a lawsuit claiming that the company discriminates against women who take maternity leave. The legal fight comes at a time when other drugmakers have paid big money to settle class-action claims of discrimination against female employees.

In Merck's case, a former employee in its global operational excellence department, Kerri Colicchio, sued in 2008 after she became pregnant for the third time during a 19-year career with the company. As Courthouse News Service reports, Colicchio claimed that the company systematically discriminated and retaliated against women who took maternity leave. In her particular case, she claimed she was denied a promotion--and eventually terminated--because of that third pregnancy.

Merck asked for summary judgment in the case, but a federal judge has now ruled that Colicchio's suit can go forward--at least on the discrimination claims. The retaliation claims were tossed out.

If Colicchio's suit is successful, the statements allegedly made by a couple of Merck executives could be to blame. One allegedly said outright that she wouldn't be promoted to VP because of her plans to take maternity leave; another allegedly discouraged her from coming back to work because "babies need their mammas." Novartis ($NVS) lost its discrimination lawsuit partly because of some key managers' remarks about pregnant women.

A reasonable jury could deem one of those Merck managers' statements as discriminatory, Judge Stanley Chesler concluded, along with her loss of job responsibilities when she came back to work and her eventual termination, the news service reports.

The Merck case differs from some other big discrimination battles in one key way: It's a single defendant rather than a class action. Novartis faced a $250 million verdict in its class action suit and eventually settled for $175 million. Forest Laboratories ($FRX) now faces a $100 million gender bias suit filed by three women who've sought class-action status. Meanwhile, Pfizer ($PFE) faces discrimination claims from an ex-sales rep.

- read the CNS piece

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