Saudi firm not 'immune,' bias suit says Pasadena woman claims company forced her out

October 12, 1992|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Staff Writer

Marian Heymann says sex discrimination by her employer forced her to quit her $40,000-a-year job five years ago.

So does the Maryland Human Relations Commission.

But her employer, an arm of the Saudi Ministry of Health, says no discrimination ever took place and that even if it did, the company wasn't -- and isn't -- bound by the state's anti-discrimination laws.

Administrative Law Judge Sondra Mackel is to hear preliminary arguments in the civil rights case tomorrow morning. At stake, lawyers for both sides say, is whether Maryland's employment laws apply to companies run by foreign governments.

Mrs. Heymann, a 51-year-old Pasadena woman who is now a legal secretary in Baltimore, was a purchasing agent for Royspec Purchasing Services from 1981 to 1987.

Royspec -- which stands for Royal Specialist -- buys more than $40 million worth of equipment, supplies, medicine, computers and furniture yearly for King Faisal Specialist Hospital, Saudi Arabia's main hospital.

More than 40 people work in the company's 44,000-square-foot building in the Baltimore Commons Industrial Park near Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

In the suit -- filed this year in the Office of Administrative Hearings -- the Human Relations Commission says Mrs. Heymann's working environment became "both intolerable and hopeless" in March 1987.

She was told by Ali S. Al-Shabrami, her newly hired boss, that "she was destroying morale, accepting kickbacks . . . and that a woman does not belong in the position of buyer."

The suit contends that Mrs. Heymann was Royspec's "most productive purchasing agent" and that she was the only one qualified to purchase and handle controlled drugs.

Of the three purchasing agents employed by Royspec at the time, she handled about 80 percent of the company's purchase orders, the suit says.

"I was hurt really badly," Mrs. Heymann said Saturday in a telephone interview. "I was with that company for seven years, from the very beginnings of it. But I just couldn't take the harassment every day."

The suit says Mr. Al-Shabrami began assigning more non-medical work to Mrs. Heymann, started increasing her workload and directed one of her "male counterparts to secretely check up on her by contacting several of her clients."

Mrs. Heymann left the company in April 1987, the suit says. But when she tried to apply for work elsewhere in the medical-purchasing field, Mr. Al-Shabrami told a potential employer that she was "not dependable, had a poor attitude, was not liked by any employees, was not punctual and had bad work habits," the suit says.

"I worked my way up in that company," she says. "I look at what I'm doing now and what I was doing then, and it's hard to swallow. I'm back where I started when I graduated from high school."

Mrs. Heymann began working as a typist at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1966. By the time she joined Royspec in 1981, she was an assistant purchasing agent. She left the hospital when Mr. Al-Shabrami's predecessor offered her a $20,000-a-year salary, more than she was making.

"I was raising three daughters, and I really needed the money. Before then, I thought I would have worked at Hopkins until I retired," she said. "Now I wish I had."

Her complaint was filed in May 1987, but the Human Relations Commission did not file its suit until June this year. Before the filing, the commission said, it tried to work out a compromise with Royspec to keep the complaint confidential.

Royspec is not a company in a traditional sense, since it is owned and operated by the Saudi government. And, although it does its business almost completely within the United States, it is not subject to federal and state corporate income taxes, isn't required to withhold its workers' personal income taxes and does not pay Anne Arundel County property taxes.

It is Royspec's ownership that makes it immune from lawsuits from the state, a lawyer representing the company says.

"I would argue that the state of Maryland has very little power over the kingdom of Saudi Arabia," says Richard Hafets, an attorney with the Baltimore firm Piper & Marbury. "Foreign governments are generally immune from suit . . . when it comes to internal personnel manners."

The Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act bars lawsuits unless the government is running a commercial enterprise. But Mr. Hafets said that although Royspec's business is definitely commercial in nature, the way it treats its employees is an internal matter over which Maryland has no jurisdiction.

Royspec also will argue tomorrow that even if the immunity act doesn't protect it from being sued, Maryland's anti-discrimination laws do not include foreign governments in the list of employers who are covered by those laws. Also, Mr. Hafets said, state governments cannot get involved in "foreign relations."

"The kingdom of Saudi Arabia has the right to make internal decisions without interference from Maryland," Mr. Hafets said.

Lee D. Hoshall, a lawyer with the Human Relations Commission, called those arguments "ridiculous."

"While this company is wholly owned by Saudi Arabia, it is a legally separate entity," Mr. Hoshall said. "It doesn't have the right to violate the laws of this state."

Mrs. Heymann and the Human Relations Commission are asking for more than $100,000 in back wages, job reinstatement and for Mr. Al-Shabrami to be ordered "to undergo intensive education and training on the role and status of women in American society," the suit says.

For Mrs. Heymann -- who is earning about half as much at her current job as she did when she quit Royspec -- the suit is a painful reminder of "a ruined career."

"I was in the field for 21 years," she said. "I don't think I could go back."

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