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July 5, 2012

ZOA prevails in wrongful termination suit

http://www.jewishjournal.com/los_angeles/article/zoa_prevails_in_wrongful_termination_suit_20120705

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge in Beverly Hills cleared the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) of all claims brought against it by a former employee alleging wrongful termination as well as pregnancy and sex discrimination.

Judge Richard A. Stone found that Julie Sager, who served as the national director of campus activities until she was terminated in May 2009, failed to prove she was fired because she was pregnant.

Stone rejected Sager’s argument that the multiple reasons given for her termination masked the fact that she was terminated for her pregnancy. Rather, he said the varying explanations stemmed from differing perceptions of events and circumstances, but together amounted to reasonable cause for termination.

Sager’s attorney, Charles J. Wisch, claimed ZOA promoted a male employee to fill Sager’s position immediately after she was terminated, challenging ZOA’s claim that eliminating her position was in part a cost-cutting measure. The judge accepted ZOA’s evidence that her primary responsibilities were assumed by then-Executive Director Gary Ratner.

ZOA is an Israel advocacy organization with a budget of more than $4 million. With fewer than 50 employees, it is not required to have a maternity leave policy.

The judge found there was not enough evidence to support claims that ZOA acted out of gender bias when it earlier fired the only two other employees who had requested maternity leave from ZOA. Stone also noted that ZOA President Morton Klein, who hired Sager in 2002, had increased her salary substantially after two prior maternity leaves while she was employed at ZOA.

Klein testified on June 13, at the end of the two-week trial.

Wisch said he and his client are evaluating all options for how to proceed, including an appeal. “Regrettably, [Judge Stone] did not find that the evidence was sufficient to show discriminatory intent,” Wisch said.

Sager had sought about $900,000 in back pay and lost potential future pay, as well as unspecified punitive damages and compensation for alleged intentional infliction of emotional distress.

ZOA attorney Rex Julian Beaber estimates the total costs of the case will be $350,000, and in a wrongful termination lawsuit a losing plaintiff is not required to cover the defendant’s legal fees. Beaber said while ZOA had the opportunity to settle, it declined because ZOA leaders viewed the charges as spurious.

Despite ruling in favor of ZOA, the judge was critical of the stream of current and former ZOA employees and lay leaders who took the stand over the course of the trial.

“As for the evidence presented, the court finds that there was not one witness in the case whose testimony was not tainted by some bias, interest or other motive,” Stone wrote in his ruling. “Both attorneys did an outstanding job highlighting inconsistencies, misstatements, dishonesty, personality issues and other interests that compromised the witnesses and their testimony.”

Steven Goldberg, a national vice chair for the ZOA and president of ZOA’s L.A. regional board, lauded the ruling: “The ZOA is gratified by its sweeping victory in the lawsuit,” he said. “Considering the actual evidence, Ms. Sager’s allegations of discrimination were not only groundless, they were obscene.”

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