Zionist Organization of America President Morton Klein took the stand Thursday in a Beverly Hills courtroom as the final witness in a sex discrimination and wrongful termination case filed against the ZOA.
Julie Sager, who worked for the ZOA for seven years, including five years as national director of campus activities, based in Los Angeles, is accusing the ZOA of sex and pregnancy discrimination for firing her when she returned to work after a short maternity leave following the birth of her third child in May 2009. The ZOA counters that Sager was a problematic employee for some time. ZOA also notes that it accommodated Sager through three pregnancies while she was employed at ZOA.
The ZOA is an Israel advocacy organization with a budget of around $4 million.
Taking the stand on the last day of two weeks of testimony from both sides, Klein testified for the defense regarding Sager’s employment history. He also stated that he harbored no bias against pregnant women. In fact, he said, the opposite is true.
“No one could be more thrilled than me when Jewish women have children,” Klein said, choking up a bit. “I am a child of Holocaust survivors. I lost many first cousins, aunts, uncles, and three of four grandparents to Hitler, and I’m thrilled when Jewish woman have children … I wish they’d have more.”
The plaintiff contends that ZOA has fired three women shortly after they took maternity leave. ZOA countered that the women were all terminated for cause, and that many other women have held and continue to hold important positions at the organization. As an organization with fewer than 50 employees, ZOA is not federally mandated to have a maternity leave policy.
ZOA says that it had to eliminate Sager’s position because of budgetary stress following the Madoff scandal and economic collapse of 2008. But in a brief filed with the court, Sager’s attorney, San Francisco-based Charles J. Wisch, says ZOA filled the position immediately and maintained the same number of employees in the campus activities department.
“Julie Sager successfully built and ran ZOA’s campus department for over 7 years before ZOA fired her,” Wisch said. “[Her] record speaks for itself about her competency and effectiveness.”
Steven Goldberg, a national vice chair for the ZOA and president of ZOA’s L.A. regional board, said ZOA refused to settle, because it is “outraged at being falsely accused.”
“Any type of discrimination is sickening, but it’s also pretty sickening to make an accusation that is completely false, especially when it’s done so cynically,” said Goldberg, an attorney who was co-counsel on the case but stepped down so he could be called as a witness.
The damages the plaintiff is seeking are not specified the brief, except to say they include compensation for back pay; intentional infliction of emotional distress and punitive damages.
The trial, which is expected to rest on Friday, will be decided by California Superior Court Judge Richard A. Stone, who is presiding over the jury-less bench trial, as agreed to by both sides.
The timing of the verdict is at Stone’s discretion.