Bias suit aganist BG&E may reopen High court ruling was awaited

March 22, 1991|By Michelle Singletary | Michelle Singletary,Evening Sun Staff

A $2.2 million sexual discrimination suit against Baltimore Gas & Electric Co., put on hold pending the U.S. Supreme Court's decision regarding the legality of a fetal-protection policy, could be reopened now, the plaintiff's attorneys say.

The high court ruled unanimously Wednesday that employers may not ban women of child-bearing age from jobs involving potential health hazards. The decision was against Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls Inc., a battery manufacturer that banned women from jobs that would have exposed them to lead.

The landmark decision might strengthen a lawsuit filed by 38-year-old Audrey W. Erickson of West Virginia, according to her attorneys. Erickson is being represented by a Baltimore firm, Langhoff & Wacher, and a Moundsville, W. Va., firm, Burkey & Burkey.

"The Johnson Controls case was going to make or break our case . . . and I think it has made our case," said Michael Burkey yesterday from his West Virginia law office.

In February, U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson ordered closed Erickson's case until the Supreme Court ruled on the suit filed against Johnson Controls by the United Auto Workers. The judge ruled that Erickson's case could be reopened for "good cause" pending the high court decision.

Five of the Supreme Court's nine members held that so-called "fetal-protection" employment policies violate the civil rights laws that forbid job discrimination against women on the basis of sex or pregnancy.

Burkey said he and his co-counsels, which include his wife, Linda, will have to review the Supreme Court decision before proceeding with the lawsuit.

"We are obviously pleased," Stephen Langhoff said. "The Supreme Court decision enhances our case tremendously."

John A. Metzger, a BG&E spokesman, said the company would not comment on the suit.

Erickson, who is married and has a 10-year-old daughter, filed suit in November in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, alleging that BG&E denied her the right to work as a subcontractor at its Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant because she was a woman.

Last May, Erickson had been part of a team of 10 -- eight men and two women -- working for NUC Services Inc. of Essex, Conn., a subcontractor of Westinghouse. The team had been dispatched to Calvert Cliffs to perform repair and maintenance services on nuclear steam generators in a containment area.

Erickson says in the suit that managers at the plant refused to allow the two women to work in the area and sent them back to the hotel where they were staying. Although Erickson had worked at other nuclear power plants and was among the more && experienced members of the team, she was not allowed to work at Calvert Cliffs. Managers later told her it was because of the company's fetal-protection policy, Burkey said.

Burkey said Erickson informed managers at the plant that she was sterile and had undergone a tubal ligation in 1983 and that she had medical documentation to prove it.

The managers said it didn't matter and denied her entry to work, Burkey said. As a result Erickson was unemployed for several weeks and that incident possibly led to her leaving NUC, Burkey said.

A spokesman for NUC confirmed that Erickson no longer works for the company but refused to answer any other questions.

Burkey said Erickson is now driving a tractor trailer for a living. Erickson, who was on the road, could not be reached for comment.

Erickson is seeking $200,000 in compensatory damages and $2 million in punitive damages.

In court files, BG&E said it had the right to restrict entry into its private property for whatever reason provided that the reason is not in violation of a state or federal law. And, because the company did not directly hire Erickson, she therefore had no legal right to work at its plant, the company said in court records.

BG&E's fetal-protection policy, in effect since 1982, was set by the medical department, according to Metzger, who added that he had not yet been able to determine what jobs are affected or the specifics of the policy.

The high court decision is being studied by the utility company's legal department and could require BG&E to "revisit our policy," Metzger said.

"We will, of course, fully comply with the Supreme Court decision," Metzger said, "and are in the process of evaluating what application it may have on various jobs within the company. It seems to apply to persons in numerous areas of work."

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