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Moda’s Former Marketing Director Sues Insurer Over Unequal Pay

The Moda Tower in downtown Portland. | LYNNE TERRY/THE LUND REPORT
May 19, 2020

The former marketing director of Moda Health is suing the insurer over allegations of violating Oregon’s Equal Pay Act.

In a complaint filed with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries in November and a lawsuit filed last week in Multnomah County Circuit Court, Erin O’Brien said that Moda paid a male colleague who supervised a smaller team but did similar work $52,000 more a year. The documents also charge that O’Brien’s supervisor, Mehdi Tabrizi, who is male, discriminated in other ways against female employees.

Moda did not respond to a request for comment.

O’Brien was hired by Moda in October 2016 to oversee the marketing strategies of Moda and its affiliates as director of marketing and brand, the suit says. Earlier that year, the company hired a man, Ed Stojakovic, as director of UX or user experience to oversee Moda’s online presence and support the marketing goals developed with O’Brien’s department, the complaint says. 

“The UX and marketing directors’ job duties significantly overlap because of their mutual goals to widely publicize defendant’s products and services,” the suit says. “Plaintiff and the UX director met weekly to discuss and coordinate their work.”

The lawsuit says that O’Brien supervised 13 employees. The labor bureau complaint says that O'Brien supervised seven more people than Stojakovic. Tabrizi oversaw both managers.

The documents accuse Tabrizi of being derogatory towards women and minimizing their contributions.

“Supervisor Tabrizi was hyper-critical of females in the organization, would speak over women during meetings and appropriate their ideas as his own,” the suit says. “Tabrizi further criticized plaintiff for being overly aggressive in seeking promotion and advancement.” The suit says Tabrizi told O’Brien that it must be difficult for her to travel with her family obligations. It says he did not make such comments to men.  

Women under O’Brien complained to her “numerous” times about Tabrizi’s behavior, the suits says. That prompted her to sit down three times --  in September 2017 and January and June of 2018 -- with the company’s vice president of human resources, Mary Lou True, and executive vice president, Steve Wynne, to complain about Tabrizi. 

The suit indicates that the situation didn’t improve. In January 2019, the same month that Oregon’s Equal Pay Act went into effect, O’Brien again complained about Tabrizi in a meeting with human resources.

The suit says Moda launched an investigation a year after O’Brien made her first complaint and interviewed several female employees. The suit does not indicate what investigators concluded.

It says human resources officials recommended that O’Brien and Tabrizi work with an executive coach to mediate their relationship.

While that was going on, human resources inadvertently sent O’Brien a company-wide compensation report that showed that Stojakovic was paid $52,134 more a year than O’Brien.

O’Brien told human resources she had the company-wide report. The vice president of human resources later forced O’Brien to delete it while standing over her shoulder, the lawsuit says. True said that Tabrizi knew about the pay disparity, the suit says.

O’Brien pressed for a salary match, as guaranteed under the law. Oregon’s Equal Pay Act requires employers to give employees who perform similar work equal pay provided there are no other justifications for a pay difference, such as seniority, education or training. The labor complaint, which O’Brien withdrew to file the lawsuit, said that Moda gave her a $10,000 bonus in August 2019.

“I believe that this was an inadequate effort by respondent to equalize my pay to my male counterpart who performs comparable work,” the complaint said.

Under the law, a company cannot lower one person’s compensation to equal that of another. Employers can freeze a higher wage, however, while raising others to bring them into balance.

The suit says that Moda declined to raise O’Brien’s pay. She resigned in December 2019.

"I sought other employment due to my employer's failure to correct my discriminatory and retaliatory workplace conditions based on my sex," the complaint said.

The lawsuit says that Moda has not conducted an equal pay audit, which can protect companies from paying damages in unequal pay lawsuits.

The suit seeks nearly $1 million in damages.

You can reach Lynne Terry at [email protected] or on Twitter at @LynnePDX.