A bid by TV urologist Dr. Jennifer Berman to compel arbitration of a discrimination suit brought by her Black former office manager is being mulled by a judge, who heard arguments Wednesday and took the motion under submission.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Anne Richardson issued a tentative ruling on Tuesday favorable to plaintiff Synyahn Johnson and disagreeing with Berman’s lawyers, who argue in their court papers that the claims in plaintiff Johnson’s lawsuit are “clearly and unmistakably covered by the arbitration clause” in her employment agreement.
Johnson, Berman and the doctor’s staff communicated throughout the plaintiff’s employment through email, and Johnson twice used that method of communication to send documents that included the signed agreement to arbitrate employment disputes, according to Berman’s attorneys’ court papers.
After attorneys for both sides stated their positions during Wednesday’s hearing, Richardson said she wanted to mull the issues further.
In her tentative ruling, Richardson said Berman’s petition to compel arbitration and put a stay on the civil suit should be denied for a failure to show the employment relationship between the parties involved interstate commerce.
Berman’s attorneys maintained in their court papers that the alleged arbitration agreement involved interstate commerce because Berman is a nationally known urologist and sexual health expert with a practice that serves clients from across the nation.
In a sworn declaration, Johnson denies she agreed to arbitrate disputes.
“I never intended to sign an arbitration agreement with defendants and therefore would never take any actions that would bind me to arbitration,” Johnson says.
Berman is a sexual health expert, urologist and female sexual medicine specialist and a former co-host on “The Doctors.” In a sworn declaration, Berman said she includes the arbitration clause in the employment agreement for all new employees.
Johnson’s suit was filed last July 5. Her other allegations are retaliation, hostile work environment, failure to prevent discrimination, harassment and retaliation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Johnson was hired in December 2021 and, unlike non-Black prospective employees, was not paid for her “working interview” held before her first day on the job, the suit states. When she asked why she was treated different, she was “immediately met with hostility and was accused of being ungrateful,” the suit states.
Johnson was also met with “aggression, hostility and condescension” when she asked why on one occasion she was paid later than non-Black workers, the suit states.
Berman scolded Johnson, saying, “I told you four times, it will go out Monday. What don’t you understand?” according to the suit.
Johnson believes Berman’s office hired her “to keep away suspicion that she did not want to hire African-Americans,” the suit states.
Berman’s office soon began “stripping away many of (Johnson’s) job duties and her position as office manager was undermined,” the suit states.
Johnson also was threatened with being transferred from a full-time to a part-time employee and told she had to take less money if she wanted to keep her job, a dilemma not facing other employees, the suit states.
Berman once used the word “slave” when talking to Johnson about another employee, but the urologist did not make similar racially charged remarks while speaking with anyone else in the office, Johnson alleges, leading the plaintiff to believe Berman “liked to taunt her by making these triggering statements to plaintiff as an African-American.”
The alleged workplace mistreatment of Johnson caused her to become ill and so she took a day off to recuperate mentally and physically, but Berman sent intimidating and harassing text messages stating the plaintiff “would no longer have employment if she did not show up the following day,” according to the suit.
Johnson filed a formal complaint with Berman’s office in March 2022, requesting that management investigate her complaints and stop treating her differently because of her race, the suit states.
About an hour later, Berman accused Johnson of being a “threat,” ordered her to leave the premises and “indicated that her employment was being terminated,” the suit states.
When Johnson asked for a formal notice of termination, Berman wrote on a piece of paper, “Due to your threatening and toxic attitude and behavior, and insubordination and verbal insults in the past, I do not feel this is a good fit for either party. Please consider this (today) your final work day to be concluded now,” the suit states.
Johnson continues to suffer from emotional distress as well as financial losses, the suit states.