Taking Gas at Texaco

updated 11/11/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/11/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

JANELLA SUE MARTIN WELL REMEMBERS the clay she decided to sue Texaco Inc., the nation's third-largest oil company, for sex discrimination. On Aug. 19,1985, Martin, then 42, returned from vacation with her husband, Marshall, to her job as Texaco's western regional credit supervisor in Los Angeles. Jerry Fisher, the credit manager from the main office in Houston, was wailing with good news and bad news. The good news: The help she had been lobbying for was on its way. That was a relief to Martin, who had been working 50-hour weeks to monitor the fiscal health of the California refineries that Texaco dealt with.

Then came the bad news. Fisher told Martin that her long-awaited promotion to credit manager, which she claims had been promised when she agreed to lake the Los Angeles job two years before, wasn't going to happen. The job was going to a man instead. Furious, Martin, who had also been passed over three years earlier, told Fisher, "Jerry, I'm going to fight you on this."

She did, and won—big. Within days, Martin filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Six years later, on Oct. 2, 1991, a Los Angeles jury awarded her $2.7 million in compensatory damages, then topped that the next day by granting her a whopping $15 million in punitive damages. The $17.7 million was believed to be the largest sum ever awarded in a sex discrimination case. Said Rod Hoard, who was foreman of the eight-man, four-woman jury, "We wanted to set an example against Texaco. I think they had better open up their eyes to discrimination."

Martin's eyes filled with tears when the verdict was announced. Outside the courtroom the next day, she told reporters, "I feel wonderful. I feel vindicated."

Martin says that the personal cost of the six-year case was tremendous. Immediately after she filed her complaint, she recalls, "My blood pressure shot up 70 points. I couldn't stop eating, and I gained 30 pounds." She also began forgetting little things, such as car keys and appointments. At the trial, a Harvard psychiatrist testified that these were typical symptoms of dysthymia, a form of depression brought on by emotional distress. For Martin, stress came at the office, which, she says, divided into two camps: those who tolerated her and those who didn't speak to her at all. Only a handful, she says, remained friendly. "I felt like I had the plague."

In addition, says Martin, curious accidents began to happen around her. Three windows near her office were shot out by a high-powered rifle; she found her own office window mysteriously shattered one day; her husband's car was vandalized in the company garage; and their North Hollywood apartment was burglarized. Among the stolen items was the computer containing all her data for the discrimination suit. Still, Martin pursued her case. "I could have walked away," she says, "but I believe in that saying, 'Bloom where you're planted.' It had to be done."

Actually, it had already been done at least (nice before at Texaco—In Martin herself. The daughter of an Arkansas construction worker, Alton Jones, and his wife, Hazel, young Janella married Marshall Martin two weeks after she graduated from high school. They settled in Little Rock, where Marshall worked as a slate government clerk, then opted for higher-paying work as a crop duster. They had two children, Carmen, now 30, and Maria, 27.

Janella was working as a supply clerk for Texaco in 1970 when Marshall was injured in a plane crash. "He was in a brace for a year. Janella says, "and we decided one of us better have a career." So she took the company's exam for the credit training program and scored highest among 36 applicants—only, she says, to be told by a district manager that "this job will never go to a woman at Texaco." That prompted Martin to file her first sex discrimination suit. Texaco settled out of court with her in 1977 and promoted her to a credit-department job in Memphis. (She later returned to the Houston office before accepting the Los Angeles job.) But the company apparently failed to grasp the broader implications of her complaint. Nine years later, according to EEOC data, Texaco had only four women among 5,280 supervisors and managers.

This month presiding judge Ronald Cappai will rule on the jury's award—he can increase it, reduce it, or let it stand—and Texaco plans to appeal the verdict. But whatever the outcome, it's not likely the company will forget the judgment delivered against it. Says Martin: "I feel happy for all the women at Texaco who are going to benefit from this."

LORENZO BENET in Los Angeles

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