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Jurors Reject Strohmeyer Bias Charges

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jurors cleared Western Digital Corp. on Friday of discriminating against a former middle manager who maintains her mistreatment contributed to the problems of her son, charged in the casino sex-slaying of a a 7-year-old girl.

Western Digital, an Irvine-based maker of computer parts, had been sued on charges that it favored white men in their 30s over Winifred Strohmeyer and her co-plaintiff, Barbara Anderson. The company said Friday’s nearly unanimous verdict proves it treats all workers equally.

“Obviously, we feel vindicated,” said Charles Haggerty, the chief executive, who was dismissed as a defendant halfway through the trial. “We do not tolerate discrimination in any circumstance.”

But Strohmeyer, 54, and Anderson, 51, who left Western Digital during a round of layoffs in 1996, said they would appeal. They contended that the Orange County Superior Court judge unfairly put off-limits as evidence most of what they described as a longtime pattern of harassment and bias.

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The evidence not allowed included Western Digital’s treatment of other women, statistics about the overall makeup of the company’s work force, and the issue of whether a manager in Asia had paid for prostitutes on his expense account.

“It’s only one step, and the next step is to appeal,” Strohmeyer said. "[The judge] ruled out our ability to prove all the facts.”

She said her main concern is her son, Jeremy, who is scheduled for trial in April in Las Vegas on charges of kidnapping, raping and murdering Sherrice Iverson of Los Angeles. The 7-year-old was slain last May in a restroom at the Primadonna casino on the California-Nevada line while her father gambled.

Jeremy Strohmeyer, 19, who unsuccessfully tried to have his incriminating statements to police excluded as evidence at his trial, is holding up well “considering,” his mother said.

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The company contended that it laid off Anderson, a tax specialist, because she had too little experience in foreign taxes--an area of prime importance as the company’s overseas business boomed. It said Strohmeyer was a valued employee who accepted a career-enhancing job as human relations manager in Singapore and later turned down a transfer to a $110,000-a-year job at the company’s Rochester, Minn., facility.

Strohmeyer attempted to portray the Singapore transfer as part of a scheme to ease her out of the company after her repeated complaints about discrimination caused friction with Haggerty. Her husband testified that during the assignment, his son, previously regarded by teachers as “an all-American boy,” began for the first time to receive low grades.

Both sides had agreed before trial not to raise the question of Jeremy Strohmeyer’s arrest, which came 10 months after the suit was filed. Judge Randell Wilkinson allowed virtually no other testimony about the son, and he never played a part in the jury’s deliberations, members of the panel said in interviews later.

The jury voted 12 to 0 against both Strohmeyer and Anderson on the sex discrimination charge. On the age bias charge, the decision went unanimously against Anderson and 10 to 2 against Strohmeyer.

Juror Jay Henry, a former fighter pilot who is now the principal of Calvary Chapel High School in Santa Ana, said the jury saw virtually no evidence of discrimination against Anderson.

He said Strohmeyer presented a more difficult case because she had “raised some hard questions” about discrimination for the company. But in the end, “though there might have been some problems, we didn’t think it was because of her sex or her age,” said Henry, 43.

Juror Jackie Diab, a 28-year-old data entry supervisor, said she was disappointed that she had no chance to hear other women tell of their alleged mistreatment--testimony she said could have swayed her.

And juror Gary Dial, 37, a UC Irvine liaison with corporations, said he would have looked more favorably on the case as one of simple wrongful termination--a charge the judge had dismissed. But they both agreed they had found no persuasive evidence of sex or age bias.

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