NEWS ANALYSIS : Big Employment Suits May Yield Only a Pittance : Courts: Businesses normally keep fighting until the jury awards are either chopped down or tossed out.


When two former Hughes Aircraft staffers were awarded $89.5 million by a Los Angeles jury last year in a racial discrimination suit, their lawyers portrayed the record-breaking judgment as a major victory against bias in the workplace.

But neither worker has ever gotten a penny of the award. The decision was reversed by the trial judge, and now the case languishes in the California appeals court system.

That suit and the recent settlement in Janella Sue Martin's celebrated sex discrimination case against Texaco demonstrate a fact of life in employment litigation: Big jury awards grab widespread attention, but rarely do the multimillion-dollar payoffs ever actually arrive. Big employers normally keep fighting until the awards are either chopped down or tossed out.

Moreover, the substantial victories that plaintiffs occasionally do chalk up against employers normally come only after long and emotionally draining struggles.

"The trial is only the start of the battle for the plaintiff. Even after you win an award you can spend a whole series of years trying to keep it and collect it," said Amy Ardell, one of the two Santa Monica lawyers representing the former Hughes workers.

The Texaco case was wrapped up, except for minor details, with a settlement whose details began to emerge this week despite the trial judge's strict admonitions to keep the matter confidential.

The pact ended Martin's 10-year legal struggle to prove that the company both denied her promotions because she is a woman, and then retaliated against her when she protested the alleged discrimination.

Sources familiar with the case say Texaco will pay out somewhere from $1 million to $2 million under the settlement. But after legal fees and expenses are parceled out, experts say, Martin, 52, might wind up with less than half of the cash and only a small fraction of the precedent-setting $20 million that she was awarded by a jury in 1992.

Moreover, Martin, a Texaco employee for nearly 30 years who most recently worked as a credit supervisor in the company's Universal City offices, is required to quit her job--something she long said she did not want to do. And Martin, who declined to comment on the settlement because of its requirement of confidentiality, has previously described herself as being debilitated mentally and physically by the stress of the legal battle.

"I think if you talked with Janella today, she'd say she isn't happy with what happened," said Stefan Mason, a lawyer who represented one of Martin's former bosses in connection with the case.

Even so, the number of employment discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuits continue to mount. "There's no lack of [plaintiffs] lawyers out there to take these cases," said Dennis H. Vaughn, who was hired by Hughes after it was hit with the $89.5-million judgment.

Employers fight major employment lawsuits furiously largely because they fear if they give in against one plaintiff, a flood of "me-too" lawsuits will follow.

"Companies--especially large companies--just don't roll over and write a check," said Larry J. Shapiro, a lawyer and publisher of California Employer Advisor newsletter. "You don't want to give the impression that you're an easy mark."

In another celebrated case, Baker & McKenzie, the world's largest law firm, last year was ordered to pay $7 million to a legal secretary in its San Francisco office who sued for sexual harassment. But, following the pattern of other big cases, a judge later halved the award, and then the firm continued to appeal.

As a result, the big employment-related lawsuits often become hugely expensive, win-at-nearly-any-cost battles. For its part, Texaco brought in three litigators from New Orleans, along with a Los Angeles lawyer, to defend itself in the Martin case. It also paid the legal expenses for Mason, a Century City lawyer, and a Seattle attorney who together represented a retired Texaco manager named as a co-defendant.

Observers noted that the confidential settlement obscured Martin's stated goal of improving conditions for women at Texaco, which has only a tiny percentage of women or minorities in management. For her efforts, Martin was named in 1992 as a "feminist of the year" by the Feminist Majority Foundation.

Plaintiffs' lawyers--who often portray their cases as important battles against widespread workplace abuses--say the tragedy of secret settlements and disappointingly small judgments is that they do too little to change rogue employers' ways.

"If they ever would make one of these offenders pay [a multimillion-dollar award], it would go a long way toward reducing the incidence of racial discrimination in the workplace," said Ian Herzog, Ardell's co-counsel in the Hughes case.

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