A former Fidelity Investments real estate analyst can proceed with a lawsuit alleging that the Boston company retaliated against her after the two sides settled a gender discrimination dispute, a Suffolk Superior County judge has ruled.
The analyst, Erika Wesson, asserted that the mutual fund giant and the unit she worked for — now known as Long Wharf Capital — violated her 2011 settlement agreement that stipulated she would receive a positive reference to prospective employers. Rather than helping, Wesson contends the companies sabotaged her job search.
In a 21-page ruling released last week, Judge Mary Ames cited sufficient evidence of a “pattern” of retaliation as she denied motions by Fidelity and Long Wharf to dismiss the case.
In her lawsuit, Wesson detailed 12 instances in which a potential employer appeared interested in hiring her, only to back away after doing a formal or informal reference check.
“There can be no doubt that losing job opportunity after job opportunity can constitute adverse action,” Ames wrote.
Wesson left Fidelity with a $300,000 package after alleging gender discrimination at the company. She was the lone woman in her group and described in court filings a “boys-club” culture. Fidelity investigated her claims but found them meritless.
Wesson, who holds an MBA from Vanderbilt University, has been unemployed since leaving Fidelity, despite having applied for over 350 positions and going on about 80 interviews. The company, in the court documents, has said no prospective employer has contacted it for a reference.
Fidelity has also tried to distance itself from the suit, arguing that the company is no longer responsible for the actions of Long Wharf, a unit it spun off in 2011.
Wesson has argued that Fidelity and Long Wharf continue to be affiliated, and the judge agreed there is evidence to support that the “two entities were inextricably intertwined.”
Fidelity spokesman Vin Loporchio declined to comment beyond the company’s responses in court filings.
In a statement, Long Wharf maintained that Wesson’s allegations are “based on pure speculation.” Wesson’s suit names Long Wharf managing partner Michael Elizondo.
“We are confident that a full hearing of the facts will show that all behavior was consistent with Ms. Wesson’s separation agreement with Fidelity,” according to the statement.
“It’s very gratifying that the court has understood Ms. Wesson’s experiences and appreciated the seriousness of her claims,” said Ellen Zucker, Wesson’s lawyer.
The case has at times turned bitter, with Fidelity vigorously fighting Wesson’s claims by arguing that she violated a confidentiality clause in her settlement agreement. The company sought to have her repay the settlement money, plus attorney’s fees.
But the judge ruled that it was appropriate for Wesson to make the settlement public as part of her lawsuit because she was making a claim of a breach of contract.
Wesson’s case goes to trial just as sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the workplace have become part of the national conversation. Fidelity CEO Abigail Johnson has also had to deal with the fallout from recent departures of two fund managers following allegations of sexual harassment.
Johnson has declared a zero tolerance policy for such behavior and recently moved her own office to the same floor where fund managers work in an apparent move to keep a more watchful eye on the department.
Meanwhile, another former Fidelity employee who claimed retaliation for being a whistleblower is appealing her case.
In November, a jury in Boston federal court found that Jackie Lawson had not been pushed out after alleging accounting fraud at the mutual fund company. The jurors, who also determined that Lawson did not qualify as a whistle-blower under the federal law, returned the verdict after one day of deliberations.
Lawson filed her suit in 2008, and part of it went all the way to the US Supreme Court. She filed a notice for an appeal on Tuesday.
“I am not fighting this war anymore just for myself,” Lawson said in an interview. “I am also fighting for every employee that Fidelity has treated unjustly, employees like Erika Wesson.”
Loporchio, the Fidelity spokesman, said the company is “pleased with the recent victory at trial. Anyone is allowed to file an appeal.”Shirley Leung can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @leung.