Ex-manager who sued Abbott Laboratories for discrimination loses court case

A former worker for Abbott Laboratories lost her lawsuit against the pharmaceutical giant Wednesday when a jury awarded her no damages in her case that alleged the company had targeted African American workers in a layoff that led to her firing.

Jacinta “Jay” Downing, the former Midwest sales region manager for the North Shore company, had claimed she was denied promotions and retaliated against even before she was let go in 2015.

“Although I am unhappy about the verdict, I am happy that I got my day in court,” Downing said after the verdict in federal court was handed down. “I truly believe that everything I testified during court about the actions Abbott participated in was truly discriminatory.”

Abbott didn’t respond to requests for comment on the verdict.

In closing arguments Tuesday, Downing’s attorney, Linda Friedman, argued that the company redrew her client’s sales territory and that of other workers of color specifically to target Blacks for firing.

“It may be a serious and harsh allegation to make, but we are arguing that the realignment was a takedown of Blacks,” said Friedman. “ … It took down Jay Downing. You won’t find business reasons in these performance management decisions. It’s just unfounded.”

But attorneys for Abbott said those decisions were based on a detailed record from supervisors who had described Downing as insubordinate, argumentative and not responsive to constructive criticism.

“Downing knows these are serious accusations,” Abbott attorney James Hurst said. “It’s a pretty powerful damnation of their character … and she’s willing to do it to win large money sums for damages.”

Hurst and other attorneys argued Downing’s suit was a sham and that there was no retaliation on Abbott’s part for her claims of gender and race discrimination. Instead, they claim the 2015 reduction in force affected 20 managers at the company, whose races and genders varied.

The realignment of regional sales territories redrew geography for managers across the country and was based on the guidance of an independent consulting firm. Downing’s territory was altered to add Texas and take away Michigan.

Abbott attorney Christa Cottrell denied that the realignment was discriminatory, or resulted in a Black woman being given a bad territory that led to subpar performance, because the current Midwest sales manager has met 100 percent of company’s goals and hit her profit margin, too.

Friedman also argued that leadership at Abbott consisted of powerful white men who were more comfortable with supporting and even promoting other white men at the company, despite people of color outperforming them in sales.

Downing’s termination came at the behest of Mark Bridgman, the vice president of commercial operations at Abbott, Friedman noted.

“Abbott’s leadership team looked like this: All white men. This was Mr. Bridgman’s comfort zone,” Friedman said. “Mr. Bridgman decided that she [Downing] lacked ‘executive presence.’”

Executive presence, Friedman claimed, was code for racial discrimination.

Downing was Abbott’s manager of the year in 2013 before she received a partial achievement review from her supervisor at the time, Peter Farmakis.

“Peter Farmakis compiled a 12-point memo detailing what he called Ms. Downing’s facts of gross negligence, dishonesty, flawed personal relationships, unauthorized dealings with clients,” said Friedman. “This 12-point memo was chock full of lies, distortions, racial stereotypes.”

But the insubordination claim comes from what Abbott attorneys said was Downing’s tendency to authorize deals for clients that she didn’t have the power to do without consulting higher-ups.

“We were just making business decisions that she didn’t end up liking, which is why we’re in this courtroom,” Hurst said.

The civil jury was made up of eight people, none of which identified as African American.

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