A former UCLA phlebotomist who was previously awarded nearly $1.6 million in damages by jurors in a racial discrimination case has been granted more than $800,000 in attorneys’ fees, court papers obtained Friday show.
Although a Los Angeles Superior Court jury last August rejected 48-year-old Nicole Birden’s claim that she was fired in 2016 due to her race, the panel determined the University of California Board of Regents was liable because she was subjected to severe or pervasive harassment because she is black and her supervisors failed to take corrective actions.
On Feb. 6, Judge Michael Stern, who presided over the trial, granted Birden $808,340 in attorneys’ fees, less than half the $2.3 million the plaintiff sought.
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.”
In their court papers, Ronk and the other defense attorneys asked the judge to award Birden no attorneys’ fees, or to reduce substantially the amount sought.
The regents have appealed the verdict.
UCLA Health issued a statement after the trial stating it was disappointed in the verdict.
“UCLA Health is committed to maintaining a workplace free from discrimination, harassment and retaliation of any kind,” the statement says. “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 the clinical laboratory at UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica 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 her court papers.
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,” according to her attorney, V. James DeSimone.
“There was a culture of discrimination and harassment unfortunately at the lab,” DeSimone told the jury.
Birden was a dedicated worker who drew blood from as many as seven patients an hour, DeSimone said, adding that his client was a single mother with three adult children.
“She was good at her job, she loved her job,” DeSimone said.
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