In case you missed it, last week the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey granted plaintiffs’ motion to conditionally certify a collective action under the Equal Pay Act in the $250-million gender-discrimination suit filed against pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. Inc.
The Court further ordered that thousands of female Merck sales representatives should be given notice and an opportunity to join the case. The lawsuit alleges that Merck systematically discriminates against female sales representatives, and pregnant women in particular, in pay, promotions and other terms and conditions of employment. The Court held that plaintiffs presented sufficient evidence of discrimination in pay to warrant notifying women across the country.
The Court’s decision also affirmed that an internal Merck policy purporting to govern contact between Merck employees and “third parties” does not bar Merck female sales representatives from communicating with Plaintiffs’ counsel and joining this lawsuit.
Some background on the case: In May 2013, Kelli Smith filed a class action lawsuit in New Jersey federal court alleging that pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co., Inc. (“Merck”) discriminates against female employees in its sales force in pay and promotions. Ms. Smith also claims that Merck discriminates against pregnant women and women who take maternity leave.
Early in 2014, several other women from across the country who had experienced similar discrimination at Merck joined Ms. Smith’s lawsuit. They too alleged class wide discrimination against female employees in pay and promotion, and on the basis of pregnancy. Although Merck sought to have the plaintiffs’ claims dismissed, the court denied Merck’s request.
Just how big this collective action will get is ultimately anyone’s guess, but the case should act as a stark reminder that “equal pay” is still largely a concept — and not a reality — in today’s business world.