Foley Lyman Law Homepage
Confidential Consultation
Alexandra Tashman: Settlements sweep discrimination issues under the rug

news tashmanBy Alexandra Tashman

Often, when a major corporation, like a tobacco company or a commercial bank, wants to make a lawsuit go away, it pays the plaintiff to keep quiet. The company then walks away without having to claim any liability or fault, and the plaintiff is compensated with a monetary settlement.

This would seem to be the case with Dr. Christian Head, a former surgeon at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, who filed a lawsuit against the University of California Board of Regents asserting that he was discriminated against on the basis of race while employed, among other complaints.

The case, filed in April 2012, was settled for $4.5 million earlier this month, but the University “does not admit liability,” according to a statement issued by UCLA.

This approach to lawsuits is one that most Americans would comfortably associate with a large corporation, whose goals typically tend to be protecting company image and bolstering shareholder profits. It is not, however, the type of behavior we expect of a public institution of higher learning, whose purpose is not profit but rather the pursuit of knowledge.

Quiet legal settlements establish a pattern of litigation and denial that is not conducive to making progress on how we confront issues of discrimination within the UC system.

Are settlements themselves crucial to maintaining the University’s reputation, especially in cases of potential wrongful accusation? Of course.

But settlements are a reaction, not a precaution. In fact, they’re counterproductive to ensuring that UCLA’s campus climate is one of acceptance and equality because they keep case details secret. It’s impossible to come up with potential ways to preempt discrimination at UCLA if we are legally obligated to ignore the details of what may have caused it in previous incidents.

Simply put, Head’s case should serve as an impetus for UCLA and the UC system to find proactive new ways to prevent incidents of discrimination.

Addressing discrimination is crucial to keeping faculty members feeling productive and comfortable at UCLA. In a study done by UCLA’s own Higher Education Research Institute within the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, researchers found that 63.6 percent of black faculty members and 42.6 percent of Hispanic faculty members cited subtle discrimination as a source of work-related stress in a survey of full-time faculty from more than 417 universities, including UCLA.

To put these numbers into context, a total count of new UCLA faculty members from 2007-2011 found that, of 338 hires, only 22 were African American and only 26 were Hispanic, according to UCLA’s 2012 Diversity Statistics for Regular Rank Faculty report. Moreover, during the 2011-2012 school year, only about 10 percent of UCLA faculty were Native American, African
American, or Hispanic and only about 29 percent were female, according to the same report.

It would be easy for such a small community to feel isolated, making it particularly important for the administration to support and protect them.

It is as crucial as ever to make sure that all faculty members feel safe and equal on our campus.

Head’s case happens to be the most recent, but it isn’t the first time a case like this has been brought against UCLA.

One prior case of discrimination was brought in 1994 by former UCLA medical school resident David M. Dixon, who alleged employment discrimination when he was dropped from the residency program. The case took 10 years and $1.3 million to settle, and the university disputed his statements and again claimed no culpability.

Another similar case is that of Janet Conney, a former clinical instructor at the medical school, who was awarded $2.95 million in her case, which went to trial, where she claimed she was denied promotion based on her sex.

Although each of these cases are different, they represent a trend: quietly settling cases or not admitting liability does not seem to stop new ones from cropping up.

Ultimately these cases cost the University a great deal in settlements, even excluding legal fees.

To put these numbers in context, Head’s case cost the University $4.5 million – that’s enough to pay Chancellor Gene Block’s $416,000 salary for 10 years. Instead of shelling out multi-million dollar sums in settlements after the fact, UCLA can potentially avoid lawsuits like this one by putting that money toward investigating and eradicating the root causes of discrimination through faculty surveys, new trainings, educational efforts, etc.

The University can and should learn from the case of Dr. Head. He may not have been the first person to experience alleged discrimination on a UC campus, but learning from his case could result in fewer incidents.

Immediately and intensively investigating incidents like Head’s to proactively combat workplace discrimination is the key to finding a solution to prejudice on UC campuses. Without it, ignorance will continue to cause problems. And regardless of whether Head deserves his settlement, the $4.5 million would be better spent preventing discriminatory incidents from happening in the first place.

We provide expert legal representation in all areas of Employment Law including Class Actions, Wrongful Termination, Workplace Discrimination for Age, Pregnancy, Gender, Sexual Orientation or Family Issues, Harassment at Work, Severance Negotiations as well as in Business Law, Transactional and Litigation in Los Angeles, Orange County and all of California.

Foley Lyman Law Group LLP
1500 Rosecrans Avenue
Suite 500
Manhattan Beach, CA 90266
Office: (310) 706-4050
Fax: (310) 356-3105

Sign Up For Our Mailing List

E-mail Address: