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A Massachusetts woman has filed a putative federal class action against CIGNA Healthcare Inc. accusing the company of systemic gender discrimination and seeking more than $100 million in damages. Plaintiff Bretta Karp, who has worked at CIGNA since 1997, filed the action, Karp v. CIGNA Healthcare Inc., in Boston federal court on March 3. The District of Massachusetts moved the case to its Worcester division on the same day. Karp’s complaint alleges that CIGNA has engaged in engaged in discriminatory evaluation and promotion practices in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Massachusetts state law. In particular, she claims the company’s forced rankings system is discriminatory. After a direct supervisor rates an employee, the next-level manager categorizes the worker. The system limits managers to categorizing a certain percentage of reporting employees in each of three categories: exceptional, solid and needs improvement. Karp started at CIGNA as a contract manager after CIGNA acquired her previous employer. From 1997 to 2004, Karp’s job titles at CIGNA included director, assistant vice president of contracting and senior contract negotiator. All of the positions were for the Vermont, Massachusetts and Rhode Island territories. From 2004 to 2007, her title was provider contracting manager/field contracting lead for New Hampshire and Vermont. Starting in 2007, her title was provider contracting manager for Vermont, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. According to the complaint, Karp won two CIGNA awards in 2006: the National Leadership Award for the New Hampshire and Vermont markets and the Top Facility Contracting Award for the Vermont market. Karp claims that she received ratings of “above average” or “exceptional” on her mid-year and year-end reviews. She also claims that her annual performance reviews contained statements such as “Bretta is ready for higher level promotions” and that she was “ready to progress to the next level of management.” Despite these reviews, she claims she was force ranked from “exceptional” to “solid” on more than one occasion. Starting in 2003, she alleges, CIGNA took several actions that affected her compensation and career. In 2003, she claims CIGNA downgraded her salary and title without explanation. In 2004, her position was downgraded as part of a companywide process of re-evaluating positions. She claims that similarly situated male employees across CIGNA were placed in a better category. In July 2010, Karp interviewed for a provider contracting director position. She claims a senior director told her he thought she was highly qualified, but the choice “may come down to a style thing.” In August, she was notified that she would not receive the promotion because she “came across as too aggressive” in the interviews. The position ultimately went to a less-experienced male employee who had been with CIGNA for two years. In September, CIGNA informed her that her New Hampshire and Vermont markets were being reassigned to other CIGNA employees. Those changes left Karp with Massachusetts and Rhode Island, which Karp claimed was “a step backward for her career.” In a written statement, CIGNA spokesman Joe Mondy said the company has “just received the complaint and [is] reviewing it.” “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,” Mondy stated. David Sanford, Karp’s lead lawyer, said that, from an individual perspective, there’s no doubt that she has a very strong case. Sanford is a founding partner at Washington-based Sanford Wittels & Heisler, a boutique class action firm. The statistical data the plaintiffs will get from the defendant during discovery will show whether there’s a strong class case, Sanford said. “We get the data, analyze it with a labor economist and make a judgment as to whether women are paid less than similarly situated men and promoted less than similarly situated men,” Sanford said. “The answer to that is really in the custody and control of CIGNA.” At least one of the CIGNA practices that Karp claims is discriminatory has already led to a major plaintiffs’ victory. Claims that forced rankings were discriminatory were “part of our evidence at trial in the [Velez v.] Novartis case,” Sanford said. The plaintiffs in Velez, a case in the Southern District of New York, ended up netting a $175 million settlement last year. The parties settled last July after the plaintiffs won back-to-back jury verdicts of $3.4 million in compensatory damages and $250 million in punitive damages last May. “All by itself it may not be a problem, but if the forced ranking system serves to have a disparate impact on a protected group, in this case female employees it is a problem,” Sanford said. “We believe forced rankings were used in a way to have a disparate impact on women.” Sheri Qualters can be contacted at [email protected].

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