As ex-PPG scientist continues legal fight on gender bias allegations, national focus on such issues grows

Posted September 30th, 2019.

As It Appeared On

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A year ago, a federal jury ordered PPG to pay nearly $3 million to a female scientist who sued the global coatings company for gender discrimination.

Since then, Carol Knox’s award has been reduced to about $872,000 following a series of court motions, judicial rulings and an August retrial in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh.

The former project leader at PPG’s research and technology center in Monroeville is not giving up her fight. Attorney Bruce Fox — who once described the case as an example of “the old boys club” pushing aside a female manager because its members didn’t want to work with a woman — said Ms. Knox plans to appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

She will seek a new trial on compensatory damages, which include emotional distress, said Mr. Fox. She will also appeal the reduction in economic damages — which include lost income — to the U.S. District Court, he said.

PPG said its lawyers were not available to comment.

When jury awards are cut, it’s because the court determines “the damages were not justified … or excessive,” said Kate Mueting, a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Sanford Heisler Sharp, a law firm that specializes in gender discrimination and other employment issues. Her firm was not involved in Ms. Knox’s case against PPG.

Many discrimination complaints don’t even reach the trial phase and are resolved through settlements, sometimes even before court documents are filed, said Ms. Mueting.

Her firm has handled high-profile cases such as a class action filed by female students at Dartmouth College who accused professors at the school of sexual misconduct. The federal suit sought damages of $70 million, but the parties last month reached a settlement deal of $14 million after mediation.

Ms. Mueting is part of a team currently litigating a $200 million gender bias case against global law firm Jones Day. In that case, female lawyers allege that a “fraternity culture” exists at the firm and that women associates are discriminated against when they are pregnant or take maternity leaves.

According to a 2017 study by the Pew Research Center, 42% of working women in the U.S. said they faced gender bias in the workplace. Their experiences ranged from lower pay than male colleagues doing the same job to feeling isolated to being denied promotions.

Pew noted the survey was conducted the summer before a wave of sexual misconduct claims were lodged against high-profile men.

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said that in 2016, about one-third of cases filed with the agency involved gender discrimination.

Many plaintiffs want to resolve cases before they reach trial, Ms. Mueting said, because it’s often quicker and more efficient than dealing with lengthy court proceedings and delays.

While many don’t get to trial, she’s seen an uptick in the number of gender bias complaints in the past five years or so. The issue has gained traction through the #MeToo movement and cases involving celebrities and corporate executives, she said.

Those well-publicized allegations, said Ms. Mueting, have bolstered others to become “more comfortable calling out discrimination they’ve experienced and challenging that discrimination.”

Meanwhile, in the battle with PPG, Ms. Knox’s attorney said his client has shown “tenacity in battling for more than five years now to get justice.”

Ms. Knox, 55, of Lower Burrell, Westmoreland County, sued Downtown-based PPG after she was fired in 2013 for what the company said were inconsistent statements she made about an email sent to her computer. The company said the termination had nothing to do with her sex.

In her suit and in testimony, Ms. Knox, who worked at PPG for 23 years, claimed she was subject to repeated discrimination by a manager who told her he was uncomfortable around women.

She was a senior research scientist and project leader.

After her termination, she was hired by Covestro, a German-based materials sciences business that has its North American headquarters in Robinson. Ms. Knox said her salary is lower and she is not on a management track at her current job.

Following a four-day trial in October 2018, a jury awarded her a total $2.97 million including $1.5 million for emotional distress and the rest for back pay and front pay, which is the loss of future earnings.

In March, U.S. District Judge Bill Wilson slashed the front pay award by 80%, to about $198,700.

The judge said the original award — which the jury had based on a 10 years of projected earnings, retirement benefits and taxes — was “too generous” and represented “a windfall.”

In May, in response to a motion by PPG, the judge cut the jury’s award for non-economic damages, which includes emotional distress, from $1.5 million to $300,000.

Although Ms. Knox and her husband testified she was “completely devastated” after being fired and had trouble trusting people, the judge said there was “no testimony or evidence that she suffers a life-long injury or depression … or suffered a loss of reputation.”

Ms. Knox was granted a new trial. A one-day mediation session in July failed to resolve the case. A jury in the second trial awarded Ms. Knox $125,000 for emotional distress.

Mr. Fox argued in a motion earlier this month that the verdict form submitted to the jury did not provide clear information on damages, but his request for another new trial was denied.

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