Jury rejects former Suffolk prosecutor’s claims of pay bias
A federal jury on Thursday rejected a former state prosecutor’s claims that she was paid less than her male counterparts in the Suffolk district attorney’s office because she is a woman.
In a unanimous decision, the jury of six women and two men also disagreed with Christina Corda’s claims that her termination from the office was based on her complaints of discrimination. Corda, 34, had filed a lawsuit against the Suffolk district attorney’s office in March 2015. But in a sweeping verdict Thursday, the jury rejected her claims of discrimination, of retaliation, and of violations of state and federal equal pay laws.
District attorney Daniel F. Conley, who had made a rare appearance as a witness during the trial in the US District Court in Boston, welcomed the decision. He had argued that Corda was fired after she launched into an alcohol-fueled, expletive-laden outburst at a supervisor during a going-away party for a colleague.
“We are grateful to the jury for their hard work in reaching these verdicts,” Conley’s spokesman, Jake Wark, said in a statement. “They affirm what we argued from the start: Ms. Corda was fairly compensated and was terminated for her offensive and outrageous conduct and her unfair accusations aimed at a female colleague.”
Corda, who testified at the trial and later sat through the testimony with her family, would not comment outside the courtroom Thursday.
One of her attorneys, Steve Churchill, said in a statement, “We were honored to represent Ms. Corda. She had the courage to stand up for her beliefs in the ongoing battle for fair pay, even in the face of great personal risk.”
The case laid bare a history of concerns about gender discrimination at the Suffolk district attorney’s office, which Conley has led since 2002. Conley’s first assistant district attorney, Patrick Haggan, told jurors that Corda voiced the concern with him in March 2014. He testified that he had been approached by other women in the office, as well, including one who said to him, “Hopefully, you can do something about women not being treated fairly at the office.”
Haggan and John Towle, Conley’s chief of staff, testified that they held a meeting in 2013 with a cross-section of female employees in the office to address what some women saw as a secretive system of promotions and pay raises.
Towle testified that he left the meeting believing there was a perception of bias rather than a reality. But that perception needed to be addressed, he said. After the meeting, according to testimony, the office began to better publicize job openings and develop a more transparent system of pay raises and promotions, based on self-evaluations and evaluations by supervisors. The new system was not fully implemented until after Corda was fired, more than a year later in September 2014.
Corda testified, tearfully at times as Conley watched from the courtroom gallery, that she began to air concerns with Haggan and others in March 2014 after seeing eight male counterparts with similar experience receive higher pay raises than she had. By that time, she was making $53,550 as a gang unit prosecutor, while her male counterparts made between $55,000 and $62,000, according to evidence introduced in the trial.
She testified that a black prosecutor with similar experience also made less than their colleagues.
“I had expressed concerns about my salary and was terminated for voicing those concerns,” she told jurors.
Lawyers for the Suffolk district attorney’s office argued, however, that Corda failed to account for other reasons why her colleagues received greater pay raises, such as the complexity of their cases and their specialties. One prosecutor cited by Corda had worked in the appeals unit, had argued cases before the Supreme Judicial Court, and sat in on murder trials; another had served in the war in Afghanistan and acted as a legal adviser to General Stanley A. McChrystal, then to General David Petraeus.
The lawyers also showed that other women with similar length of work experience in the office had received raises higher than Corda and higher than some of the men she cited.
Conley told jurors that he fired Corda days after learning that she had lashed out at Towle in an expletive-laden tirade during a going-away party for a colleague in September 2014. She accused Haggan of lying to her, alleged gender discrimination and race discrimination, and accused the office of boosting the salary of a woman who weeks earlier had hosted a fund-raiser for Conley’s 2014 mayoral campaign. The woman, who had three fewer years experience than Corda, was now making only $500 less less than he was
Corda acknowledged she had drank three vodka soda drinks, two pumpkin beers, and a shot of tequila that night before confronting Towle, but said she was fired for what she said, not how she said it. Conley argued that she lost her integrity as a prosecutor that night.
“District Attorney Conley sets appropriately high standards for his prosecutors,” Wark said in his statement. “Ms. Corda’s actions did not meet those standards. Now that the jury has reached the only reasonable verdict, we look forward to putting this distraction behind us and moving forward with our full attention on our important work.”