CIGNA Healthcare Said Female Employee "Too Aggressive"

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Washington, DCGiven the economic conditions in the US, this is not a good time to put your livelihood on the line, but attorney David Sanford believes that the class-action suit against CIGNA Healthcare and Bretta Karp's story of biased performance reviews and promotions denied at CIGNA will inspire others at the giant healthcare provider to come forward as well.

"I am not sure what kind of response we are going to get," says Sanford, from Sanford, Wittels & Heisler. "But assuming that people who have had similar experiences in their lives at CIGNA hear about this suit, we anticipate that some of those people will contact us."

According to the complaint filed in US District Court in Massachusetts, there is a "pattern" and "practice" of gender bias "throughout all levels and departments" at CIGNA Healthcare. The complaint goes on to say that the discrimination against women is evident in the "selection, promotion, advancement, evaluation and training" at the company.

An MBA grad, with "solid" performance reviews for 14 years, Bretta Karp had had pay and job classification downgraded, her job responsibilities reduced and her job handed to a young, less experienced man.

And, last fall, when senior manager Bretta Karp was told she "was too aggressive" and it was "a style thing" that kept her from moving forward in the company, she decided to turn to the courts.

"I don't know whether is this is happening in a calculated way," says Sanford. "I can tell you from experience in other cases, our burden is not to show that there is intentional discrimination here—all we need to show is there is a policy that disadvantages women."

And Sanford thinks, given the way the company handled Karp, and given the anecdotal reports of similar problems, there is a strong case here for Karp and others. He expects that the company's own documents will tell the story.

CIGNA Healthcare denies the claim and issued a statement saying, "We are committed to diversity and equal opportunity; our workplace policies expressly prohibit discrimination in any form and we intend to fully defend against the complaint."

"It is our contention that there were pay disparities between men and women and disparities in promotional opportunities," Sanford says.

"Given Bretta Karp's observations, her experiences, we think it is likely that the statistics will bear out the claims of the class," he says.

Perhaps most revealing of all are the company's expressed reasons for Bretta Karp's failure to be promoted.

"When we've represented high-ranking executives at other companies who've been denied promotions, and the reason given is 'it is a style thing,' that is clearly code in our experience in corporate American for something else," says Sanford. "The same kind of characterization doesn't occur with men—and when it does, it is usually a positive, not a negative."

Oh he's got that right.

David Sanford is a name partner with the firm of Sanford, Wittels & Heisler. The firm recently secured the largest jury award in an employment discrimination case, winning more than $250 million for female employees at Novartis Pharmaceuticals. The firm handles litigation related to employment discrimination, wage violations, predatory lending, whistleblower law and consumer fraud, and other general public interest and civil rights cases.

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