May 26, 2011 -- It took her 20 years, but Ann Garcia, a retired special agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, finally won her battle against her former employer.
In 1992, Garcia brought a lawsuit against the DEA, arguing that she and some 200 other female agents had tried repeatedly to obtain plum overseas assignments but were blocked because the agency discriminated against them based on their sex.
Late last month, a federal administrative judge ruled that the DEA had "repeatedly and purposefully" discriminated against the class of female agents in the early '90s, and that the women had been treated less favorably than their male counterparts at the DEA.
The case was pending for two decades at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an agency that enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination in the private and federal sectors.
Garcia couldn't believe it took so long for the judge to rule on the merits of the case.
"It's been going on for almost 20 years," said Garcia. "The women of DEA suffered blatant discrimination in the workplace for years, decades. The ruling is a testament to the strength and the courage of many DEA agents who refused to accept the status quo."
In her ruling, Administrative Judge Frances del Toro wrote, "Although many qualified females applied for overseas positions, males were routinely selected over equally or better qualified female agents."
The judge pointed to the testimony of a male agent who was involved in selecting agents for foreign positions, saying his testimony constituted "direct evidence of discriminatory intent and supports a finding that there was a pattern of discrimination."
Del Toro said that the underrepresentation of women in foreign posts had been "repeatedly" brought to the attention of supervisors charged with determining who would serve abroad.
At the time, the DEA maintained more than 70 foreign offices in approximately 50 countries around the world.
The evidence presented at trial included testimony that female agents were told they should be home having babies, and if they wanted to travel overseas they should "stop getting pregnant."
Lawrence R. Payne, a spokesman for the DEA, issued a statement that acknowledged the ruling that found that the DEA had discriminated against the class of women who "between 1990 and 1992" had applied for but were not selected for positions in DEA's overseas offices. Payne declined to answer further questions regarding the judge's ruling.
Privacy laws at the EEOC restrict public access to trial motions or transcripts.
"The judge's ruling was restricted to 1990 to 1992, but we know that discrimination went on before and after those years," said Cathy Harris, Garcia's attorney from the firm Kator Parks & Weiser.
Garcia said that she joined the DEA in 1983 with the hope that when her husband, a Denver police officer, retired she could apply for an overseas position.
"We had this dream," she said. But when she began to apply for these positions she was puzzled that managers in Washington, D.C., kept asking if her husband would support her decision.
"In my case I didn't have children, I wasn't single, so they focused on my husband," she said. "At one point they asked me, 'What if he leaves you over there?'"
She then learned that other women were facing the same resistance. "My eyes were opened about how the women of DEA where treated throughout the company."
Out of 17 Applications for Overseas Jobs, 16 Went to Male Agents
"Whatever the women's situation was, they had an issue for you," Garcia explained. "One male agent said, 'The best female agent isn't equal to the worst male agent.'"
At the time, Garcia was in Denver, at times doing undercover surveillance to enforce drug laws. She received "excellent " and "outstanding" evaluations in 1991 and 1992. She had put in about 17 applications for overseas jobs. Sixteen of those positions went to male agents.
She filed an informal class action complaint, which 25 other female agents initially joined. Two weeks before the complaint was made formal, she received a position in Hong Kong and claims she was informally asked to drop the class action complaint.
She went on to serve in Australia as well. But she kept the suit going for the other women who had joined the complaint. "I felt it wasn't just about me, I felt an obligation to correct a wrong," she said.
Another female special agent testified at trial that supervisors had repeatedly told her that she should not get upset if she was not selected for Asian positions, because they were "male dominated cultures" and that the DEA did not select female special agents for those positions, according to trial transcripts cited in the judge's ruling.
Garcia said that was never discriminated against in her posts abroad. "The only discrimination I ever felt was from my own agency."
Because the case was decided by an administrative judge and it took so long to decide, it will have no precedential impact on a Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court. However, experts in discrimination law said it would still send a strong message.
"The discriminatory practices detailed by the court are not uncommon, " said Fatima Goss Graves of the National Women's Law Center, adding that such class actions often take years to decide, no matter how strong the claim.
"Companies would be wise to reflect on hiring or promotion practices that are driven in part by outdated gender assumptions," she said, pointing out that the Supreme Court is currently considering a sexual discrimination class action against retailing behemoth Walmart.
"The plaintiffs in this case proved that the DEA employed informal selection practices without any standards, which allowed supervisors to rely on stereotypes about women, their family obligations, and outmoded ideas about the appropriate jobs for women."
Garcia, who received a doctorate while working at the DEA, has written a book called "Equal Footing," intended to help women negotiate a path through a male-dominated workplace.
The next phase of the case will focus on damages.
"What we are hoping for is relief for all these women who lost out on foreign assignments, which could include back pay and compensatory damages for the pain and suffering they experienced. Those amounts will be different for each women, but the EEOC allows for a maximum of $300,000 per person for compensatory damages relief," said Harris, Garcia's lawyer.
Lawrence said, "The administrative judge is now considering submissions from the parties on potential damages. When the judge issues a decision on both liability and damages, the complaints adjudication officer for DEA's parent agency, the U.S. Department of Justice, will determine whether to accept or reject the administrative judge's decision."
For now, Garcia, who is spending her retirement in New Mexico, is grateful for the judge's decision. "I just hope that DEA can recognize that injustices were done, " she said, "and do the right thing by the women of DEA. "