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Just one week after a New Jersey state court jury cleared Johnson & Johnson in a discrimination case, the company has been hit with a class action suit alleging systemic racial bias in employment. The suit, Gutierrez v. Johnson & Johnson, Civ.-01-5302, filed in federal court in Newark on Nov. 15, is asserted in behalf of more than 1,000 African-American and Hispanic employees who held salaried or white-collar jobs with J&J in the United States from Nov. 15, 1999, to the present. The plaintiffs’ lawyers, who include Johnnie Cochran Jr., of Los Angeles, heralded the litigation Nov. 16 with a choir-backed rally at a Newark church, followed by a ride in a “Bus to Justice” to serve the complaint at J&J headquarters. Another of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, Cyrus Mehri, of Washington, D.C.’s Mehri & Skalet, was co-lead counsel in class action race discrimination suits against Texaco and Coca-Cola. The case against Texaco settled in 1996 for $176 million. Last May, a federal judge in Georgia approved a $192.5 million settlement with Coca-Cola. Mehri, in a press release, announced his intent to seek “fundamental changes in the hiring, compensation and promotion practices” of J&J, similar to those orchestrated in the Texaco and Coca-Cola cases. The Texaco settlement called for the oil company to form an “equality and tolerance task force” to give the plaintiffs a say in hiring and promotion policies. The Coca-Cola settlement likewise gives an outside panel headed by former U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman authority over personnel policies. Mark Monseau, a spokesman for the New Brunswick, N.J.-based pharmaceutical and health-care products manufacturer, declines comment on the suit other than to refer to a press release stating that J&J is “disappointed with the filing … in view of the Company’s commitment to, and strenuous efforts on behalf of, an open and merit-based work environment.” The company employs approximately 100,000 people in more than 50 countries. The named plaintiffs, Nilda Gutierrez and Linda Morgan, allege they were passed over for promotion in favor of less qualified whites and received smaller raises than their white counterparts. Gutierrez, of New Brunswick, who has worked for J&J Recruiting as a consultant for four years, says her current $41,400 salary reflects pay increases of only $1,400 over that period, in contrast with less educated white colleagues who received increases of $20,000 and $42,000 over four years. Morgan, of Piscataway, N.J., who is employed in a management position by J&J subsidiary Ethicon in Somerville, N.J., claims that she was at least as qualified as white candidates who were preferred over her for promotion. According to the complaint, minority employees at J&J start off at a disadvantage, receiving lower starting salaries because “managers are free to establish entry level salaries without adequate written guidelines and with very little oversight.” Inequities allegedly widen over time because of a “flawed and unduly subjective performance rating system.” The complaint alleges that J&J’s practice of not posting job openings for upper-level positions results in “scores of open positions throughout the Company [being] filled through an informal, behind-the-scenes process in which predominantly white managers handpick favored white candidates.” The complaint states that none of the current 12 members of J&J’s executive committee are black or Hispanic and only one of 15 members of the board of directors is a minority. Minorities who are promoted allegedly tend to encounter “glass walls,” horizontal barriers that “virtually segregate” them into “less powerful and non-revenue-generating areas” such as Human Resources. The complaint refers to a 1997 “internal diversity survey … by an independent consultant [which] revealed serious problems at the Company.” Mehri declines comment on the report, saying only that he and Cochran “conducted a thorough one-year investigation” before filing the suit, in which they interviewed dozens of employees. High-ranking African-American executives allegedly met Nov. 3 and discussed the absence of blacks at J&J’s upper levels and J&J’s problems with minority hiring, retention and promotion. The complaint also quotes the Johnson & Johnson credo, which originated in 1943 with founder Robert Wood Johnson and pledges fair compensation and equal opportunity, for the alleged contrast with the company’s actual conduct. “There is a big gap between the corporate credo and the reality in 2001,” remarks Mehri. Also on the plaintiffs’ team are Bruce Ludwig, a partner with Philadelphia’s Sheller, Ludwig & Badey, and local counsel Bennet Zurofsky, a partner with Newark’s Reitman Parsonnet. The suit charges intentional discrimination based on race under 42 U.S.C. 1981 and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination and includes a claim for disparate-impact discrimination under the LAD.

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