A black former UCLA phlebotomist who said she was subjected to racial harassment that included use of the N-word was awarded nearly $1.6 million in damages by a jury Tuesday.
The Los Angeles Superior Court jury rejected Nicole Birden’s claim that she was fired in 2016 due to her race, but the panel determined she was subjected to severe or pervasive harassment because she is black and that her supervisors failed to take corrective actions.
The jury awarded the 48-year-old Birden $500,000 for past emotional distress and mental harm, $800,000 for future emotional distress and mental harm, more than $190,000 for past economic loss and more than $86,000 for future economic loss.
“We are thankful that a diverse Los Angeles jury could come together and give Ms. birden the justice she deserved after a hard-fought jury trial,” Birden’s attorney, V. James DeSimone, said.
Lawyer Stephen Ronk, on behalf of the UC Board of Regents, argued during the trial that Birden was fired because of a “clear pattern of performance issues.”
UCLA Health issued a statement Tuesday saying it was disappointed in the verdict and reviewing its legal options.
“UCLA Health is committed to maintaining a workplace free from discrimination, harassment and retaliation of any kind,” according to UCLA Health. “Ensuring a respectful and inclusive environment is essential to the university’s mission, and employees are encouraged to report any concerns so that they can be reviewed and appropriately addressed consistent with UCLA and University of California policies.”
According to her lawsuit, filed in May 2017, Birden began working at UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica’s clinical laboratory in 2015 and was employed on a per diem basis. She was one of about five or six black employees in a mostly Latino department, according to the suit.
According to her complaint, one of Birden’s Latino co-workers used the N-word in her presence by calling her “my n—a.” The language bothered Birden, as did his playing of rap music in which singers used the offensive term, according to the suit, which alleges that other Latino employees called her “lazy,” “dark woman” and “liar” in Spanish.
In addition, some co-workers called Birden “the black girl with the attitude,” DeSimone told the jury.
“There was a culture of discrimination and harassment unfortunately at the lab,” DeSimone alleged.
Birden was a dedicated worker who drew blood from as many as seven patients an hour, DeSimone said of his client, a single mother of a 28-year-old and 21-year-old twins.
“She was good at her job, she loved her job,” DeSimone said.
He said Birden made numerous reports to management about her alleged mistreatment, but “her complaints fell on deaf ears.”
Birden has suffered financial losses as well as emotional distress, DeSimone said. She now works for Kaiser Permanente, but has fewer benefits, he said.
Ronk told jurors during the trial that Birden never said in her initial complaints to management that she believed she was being treated different because she is black.
“All of that came after the fact,” Ronk said.
Ronk said it is crucial that phlebotomists immediately answer calls from dispatchers to draw blood from patients because, depending on the situation, it can be a matter of life and death. Some of those dispatchers complained that Birden would “disappear for long periods during her shift,” according to the defense’s court papers.
“The number one goal is to make sure patient care comes first and foremost,” Ronk said.
Birden had a “clear pattern of performance issues” and “none of it had to do with race,” he said.
Birden described the co-worker who allegedly used the N-word “a good guy,” Ronk said.
“He wasn’t doing it to try and offend somebody,” Ronk said.