A black former UCLA phlebotomist was fired in 2016 for complaining about “a culture of discrimination and harassment” she experienced in the workplace that included use of the “N” word, her attorney told a jury Wednesday, but a lawyer for the University of California Board of Regents countered that the plaintiff lost her job because of a “clear pattern of performance issues.”
The attorneys gave opening statements in the Los Angeles Superior Court trial of 48-year-old Nicole Birden’s lawsuit against the UC regents, in which the Carson resident alleges racial discrimination, retaliation and retaliation.
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 her lawsuit filed in May 2017.
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,” plaintiff’s attorney V. James 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.
“The harm the UC regents caused her will be long-lasting,” DeSimone said.
But lawyer Stephen Ronk, on behalf of the UC Board of Regents, told jurors 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.
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