A federal lawsuit alleging that pharmaceutical company Pfizer is discriminating against Asian and white applicants for a coveted fellowship program has been tossed by a judge, according to reports.
The nine-year program, known as the Breakthrough Fellowship Program, seeks to boost Pfizer’s workforce diversity but is limited to “Black/African American, Latino/Hispanic and Native American” applicants. It begins with a 10-week internship at the undergraduate level and culminates in employment with the company after a fully funded master’s degree. Do No Harm, a Virginia-based nonprofit composed of medical professionals, sued the pharmaceutical giant in September for allegedly violating federal and state laws in connection with the program. These include the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which prohibits racial discrimination in contracting; Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination among entities that receive federal funding; Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, which prohibits racial discrimination in healthcare programs that receive federal funding; and human rights laws in New York State and New York City, which prohibit racial discrimination in internships, training programs and employment.
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The suit’s plaintiffs included two unidentified Ivy League students who claimed to meet the program’s academic requirements but were ultimately unable to apply due to their race. Breakthrough, which launched last year, opened applications at the end of summer.
On Friday, U.S. District Judge Jennifer Rochon in Manhattan ruled that Do No Harm failed to demonstrate a legal standing against Pfizer, according to Reuters. The nonprofit cannot seek an injunction as it would not identify the plaintiffs.
Still, Rochon pointed out that even if the plaintiffs were identified, Do No Harm had failed to establish that they were actually qualified to apply. The nonprofit submitted “little to no details about their career and educational goals, employment history, or interests,” the judge said.
Pfizer has since defended Breakthrough against the discrimination allegations. In a brief filed in October, the company said the fellowship actually supports what the Supreme Court and Congress have encouraged, citing previous cases such as Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003, which ruled that the University of Michigan Law School did not violate the Equal Protection Clause by considering race in its admissions.
“The Fellowship provides a legitimate, non-discriminatory basis for the use of racial selection criterion,” Pfizer said. “By selecting fellows who meet the Fellowship’s goal of increasing the pipeline for minority leaders, Pfizer is working toward achieving its Opportunity Parity Goals, building a workforce that represents the diversity of the communities Pfizer serves, and contributing to the amelioration of the effects of historical discrimination in the workplace.”