Genentech slapped with discrimination lawsuit

A former Genentech employee has filed a lawsuit against the biotech giant, claiming she was discriminated against due to her age and health problems and fired the day she revealed she was diagnosed with a heart ailment.

Cecilia Sistena, 48, is suing for disability, age and medical leave discrimination, retaliation, wrongful termination and intentional infliction of emotional distress. In the lawsuit, filed Jan. 23 by San Francisco attorneys Angela Alioto and Jody Meisel, Sistena claims she has suffered embarrassment and anguish. She is asking to be reimbursed for lost wages and that punitive damages be levied against the South San Francisco-based company.

In a court filing, Genentech denied all wrongdoing and claimed Sistena didn’t go through the proper channels to have her complaints addressed. Pat Gillette, attorney for Genentech, said she could not comment further. Genentech officials also declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

Meisel said her client, a single mother from Fremont, has been left without medical benefits since she was fired Aug. 9 of last year — the day she returned from bereavement leave after her brother died from cardiomyopathy, and the same day she revealed she had been diagnosed with the same heart disorder.

Sistena began working on a contract basis with Genentech in 2001 and was hired as a regular employee two years later, providing technical support to company salespeople, according to the suit. Sistena says she worked 70 hours a week and, as the help desk’s only salaried employee, was denied overtime. In 2005, she was diagnosed with hypothyroidism. Despite declining eyesight and aches and pains, she took no leave and racked up compliments from customers, the suit states.

But Sistena’s health continued to decline, according to the suit. Her frequent requests to become an hourly employee, to telecommute from home or to cut her hours were denied, according to the suit.

In November 2006, Sistena’s chest pains and extreme fatigue landed her in the hospital. She took a two-month medicalleave from Genentech, returning with a doctor’s note stating she needed more breaks — a request she maintains was denied.

The suit alleges Sistena’s supervisors pressured her to work harder despite her illnesses, at one point ordering her to take cough drops for the chronic coughing caused by her heart condition.

“It’s our position she was terminated because she was complaining about how the work was killing her,” Meisel said.

tbarak@examiner.com

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