Barbara Anderton had been a top performer for more than a decade at her employers’ underwriting firm, winning a reputation as an aggressive broker and earning a hefty six-figure salary as a manager at the firm’s Sacramento office.
Yet in 2013, the then-61-year-old Anderton was out of a job, terminated from the position she had held at Florida-based Bass Underwriters’ Sacramento office for nearly 15 years. Anderton sued, alleging she was unfairly fired in favor of a younger male colleague who was promoted into her position and today still sits in the chair she once occupied.
Bass attorneys deny the bias claim, saying the former office manager walked off the job after a “family dispute” at the company – where brother Joe Anderton is an executive vice president – over an exodus of employees from Bass’ Sacramento office to a main competitor.
But earlier this month, a Sacramento jury decided that Bass Underwriters discriminated, harassed and retaliated against the longtime manager because she was a woman and nearing retirement age, in a case that revisits the persistent problem of discrimination in the workplace. Anderton’s attorneys argued Bass violated California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act.
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Jurors agreed to awarding Anderton $2.75 million in punitive damages Oct. 6 after awarding $2 million in compensation in an Oct. 1 verdict at trial before Sacramento Superior Court Judge Shelleyanne W. L. Chang. Bass plans to appeal.
“The biggest thing to me is the people who go through this and have no recourse,” Anderton said, seated next to attorney Mark Velez outside the Sacramento County Courthouse on Wednesday. “What happens? They lose their houses. They lose their dignity. We have a lot to contribute.”
Age and gender discrimination cases are difficult to try, often relying on circumstantial evidence, Velez said. But accusations of employment discrimination, harassment and retaliation remain common in California, state Department of Fair Employment and Housing statistics show.
A total of 71,649 accusations of age discrimination, retaliation and harassment were filed with the department from 2011 to 2014, records show, including more than 16,000 claiming discrimination on the basis of age, nearly 40,000 claiming retaliation and nearly 16,000 citing harassment.
“Is this prevalent in business today? Sadly, yes. It never ceases to be a surprise,” said Michael Letizia, the Stockton-based state director of the Society for Human Resource Management, a Washington, D.C., trade group. “Employers need to recognize that policy violations can lead to huge settlements that cost them in reputation and in branding.”
“The message is: Value your older workers,” Velez said. “They contribute to the profit of your company. Let them retire on their own terms.”
Anderton saw the changing of the guard at the Sacramento office in 2010 as a warning sign, as laid out in the workplace discrimination lawsuit she filed in Sacramento Superior Court.
Bass Underwriters’ Sacramento office was growing younger and more male. Anderton’s age, then 58, was becoming a liability, and Anderton had become a target, according to the complaint. Velez, in a separate interview, depicted a “boys’ club culture” at Bass of all-male golf excursions and a pattern of men being hired and promoted ahead of their female counterparts.
Anderton alleged “pushback” from Bass executives after she lobbied for a promotion for a long-tenured female subordinate in her Sacramento office occupied largely by men. Questions from executives and those waiting in the wings about her age and whether Anderton planned to retire followed, then became commonplace, according to the complaint.
One corporate vice president in 2012, according to Anderton’s complaint, asked her directly, “You’re getting ready to retire, right?” then suggested a possible successor, though Anderton said she had no intention of retiring until age 65. The executive later asked, “How old are you anyways?” the complaint read. All became bases for her civil suit.
Anderton was devastated but kept up a brave façade, she said Wednesday.
“I started to really worry” after the conversation with the executive, she said. “I really feared for my job but I said I’m going to continue my job and do a good job for the company.”
Bass attorney Michael Laurenson, of San Francisco employment law firm Gordon & Rees, LLP, said the company’s issue with Anderton was never age or gender, but the defection of employees including other Anderton family members from Bass’ Sacramento operation.
“She did a fantastic job. She made a ton of money for herself and for the company and was one of the best producers in the company,” Laurenson said. “Everything was great, but in her last two years, eight people moved on to the competition. There was this concern (in Florida) of ‘What’s going on out there?’ ”
Bass denies firing Anderton and denies any discriminatory action. Laurenson said Anderton was hired midcareer by brother Joe in 1999.
“She’s always been older, she’s always been a woman and she made millions of dollars for the company.”
Laurenson said Bass had no plans to review its policies relating to workplace discrimination.
“One can conclude that (the termination) was unfair. They’re allowed to be unfair, but not discriminatory,” Laurenson said, adding later, “This was a family dispute. There are no policies to review, no policies to change.”
Anderton and, ultimately, a jury disagreed. On Wednesday, she talked about the road to court and to a judgment.
“It’s been a hard journey to go through this,” Anderton said, adding later, “I think of the thousands of women who go through this and have no chance of standing up to these corporations. Stand up for yourself. You have to. I toed the line, but you have to stand up for yourself.”