Merck can't sidestep $250M gender-bias suit, judge says

The sex discrimination lawsuit against Merck ($MRK) lives on. A federal judge refused to toss out the $250 million suit, which claims that female sales reps were paid less, promoted less and ignored when they complained about it.

These allegations aren't new in Big Pharma. Several of Merck's rivals have settled similar claims, notably Novartis ($NVS). In this case, 5 female sales reps claim that Merck's decisions on promotions and pay were closely tied to traditional gender roles--and that shut women out of the running for bigger paychecks and better jobs.

Men were seen as "breadwinners" who needed to advance to support their families. Not so much with women, who really should "stay at home" with their children, the lawsuit says. Pregnant women were often demoted upon return to work after maternity leave, the reps claim.

As reports, one of the plaintiffs, Kelli Smith, says she was paid less for the same job than her male colleagues were. Plus, she was demoted after returning from maternity leave, she claims. When she complained, her male boss told her to "move on"--which she eventually did, in December 2013.

In refusing to dismiss the class action suit, U.S. District Judge Joel Pisano said the allegations are "plausible," though it's "premature to determine whether plaintiffs have significant proof."

Merck said that it's "disappointed" in Pisano's decision, but is confident that the allegations lack merit. "Merck will continue to vigorously defend itself, and remains fully committed to providing equal employment opportunities for all employees."

The reps' allegations mirror those in discrimination lawsuits against Daiichi Sankyo, Forest Laboratories, Bayer, and Novartis. The Swiss drugmaker lost its case at trial in 2010, and ended up settling with the plaintiffs for $175 million.

The law firm that represented Novartis reps, Sanford Heisler, is working with Merck's plaintiffs. Originally filed in May 2013, the suit expanded in January of this year to include several more plaintiffs; at the time, Sanford Heisler said it had hiked the size of the women's claims to $250 million.

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