By Jennifer Bihm
Former UCLA employee Nicole Birden said she feels “good about her victory” now that UC regents have been ordered to pay her $1.58 million, as compensation for her experience in what she and her attorney James DeSimone are calling a hostile and racist work environment. Birden, who is African American, said she was constantly bullied and called names including the N word during her work as a phlebotomist for UCLA. She was eventually terminated, she said, without ever having been written up or subject to any other disciplinary action.
“It started out with rumors about me being ‘the new black girl with an attitude,’” Birden recalled during a recent interview with the Sentinel.
“It went from that, to me being ‘lazy’ and not performing my duties. These things were being reported to my supervisor. I tried to explain to her that [those reports] were not consistent with how I perform and how I provide patient care but she wouldn’t listen…”
There were other things DeSimone said.
“Coworkers made disparaging remarks about the color of her skin and racially stereotyped her in Spanish,” DeSimone said.
“These coworkers made harassing phone calls to Ms. Birden on hospital-issued phones during work hours despite the fact that she was diligently performing her job duties and tampered with blood specimens Ms. Birden had drawn, mislabeling them or throwing them away altogether.”
After months of that, Birden ws terminated.
“There was nothing that led up to the termination,” Birden said.
“The supervisor just said she was removing me because I was a per diem and she was under the impression that I was at will when I was not. [But]there’s something in the contract that says if you’re a per diem but you have worked 1000 hours in twelve month period, that you should be treated like a career employee, meaning that if there is a problem or situation that they have to go through progressive discipline.
“She did none of that, claiming she didn’t know I was the status I was although she was the one who made my work schedule…”
Birden said she applied for her position, finding out after a month, that it had still been unfilled. She’s been working another job for two years now, she said, and she is grateful that a jury saw her truth. DeSimone said next, they would file a suit for attorney’s fees.
“We are thankful that a diverse Los Angeles jury could come together and give Ms. Birden the justice she deserved after a hard fought jury trial,” he said.
The jury verdict totaled $1,576,145.92 with $190,033.92 being awarded to past economic losses; $86,112.00 in future economic losses; $500,000 in past emotional distress and mental harm; and, $800,000 in future emotional distress and mental harm, according to DeSimone.
For their part, the UC Board of Regents said they are looking further into the decision.
“We are disappointed with the verdict, and we are reviewing the decision and considering all available options,” said a spokesperson for the board.
“UCLA Health is committed to maintaining a workplace free from discrimination, harassment and retaliation of any kind. Ensuring a respectful and inclusive environment is essential to the University’s mission, and employees are encouraged to report any concerns so that they can be reviewed and appropriately addressed consistent with UCLA and University of California policies…”
This article originally appeared in The Los Angeles Sentinel.