Former AMH employee wins race and gender discrimination case

Mark Lamberti. (Photo: Gallo Images)
Mark Lamberti. (Photo: Gallo Images)

A former employee of Associated Motor Holdings has won her case of race and gender discrimination against the company and its CEO, according to a recent ruling by the North Gauteng High Court.

AMH, its parent company Imperial Holdings Ltd and Imperial's CEO Mark Lamberti, could now be liable for a payout of up to R23m which chartered accountant, Adila Chowan, has requested in damages.

"There is a great public interest in ensuring that the existence of systemic discrimination and inequalities in respect of race and gender be eradicated," said Judge Piet Meyer in his final judgment.

"As blatant and patent as discrimination was in the days of apartheid, so subtle and latent does it also manifest itself today."

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Chowan, who was first hired as a group financial manager by AMH in March 2012, was represented in court by legal heavyweight Advocate Dali Mpofu, SC.  

He detailed her career history with the company during court proceedings.

At one point, for a few months Chowan also filled in as Chief Financial Officer at AMH at a time when the position became vacant.

Although she completed the application to be appointed to the role on a permanent basis, she was turned down. 

Instead, a white male, Ockert Janse van Rensburg, was given the position.

At this point a promise was made by Lamberti to Chowan that she would be appointed into a CFO role within the Imperial group within one year if she stayed on.

She continued her employment.

Incident with CFO

Part of Chowan's later displeasure was due to a subsequent incident with the CFO, Janse van Rensburg, whom had been appointed ahead of her.

"On one occasion when Mr [Janse] Van Rensburg had gone to her office, they were discussing the new company vehicles that were being given to employees and the new taxes to be levied," the judge detailed in his ruling.

"During the conversation she complained to him about the colour of the car that had been given to her; it was a shade of brown. Mr Janse van Rensburg then made a comment saying, 'well the colour of the car suits your skin'. 

"When she objected, saying to him that it was an inappropriate comment to make, he replied that he had a light or white colour car that suited his skin colour."

While Janse van Rensburg denied making the comment, the judge found Chowan's version "more plausible".

At a later stage, Janse van Rensburg returned from a meeting with Lamberti telling her that the CEO had said she would not be a CFO within the Imperial Group.

A meeting with Lamberti, Chowan and others senior executives of the company was subsequently held.

"It is undisputed that Mr Lamberti told Ms Chowan that she is 'a female, employment equity, technically competent, they would like to keep her but if she wants to go she must go, others have left this management and done better outside the company, and that she required three to four years to develop her leadership skills'."

It was this incident which formed a key basis for Chowan’s case against both Lamberti and the company.

ALSO READ: Former Imperial Group employee sues CEO for R18.3m

"I pride myself on the fact that I am a qualified, professional chartered accountant, I had built my career, I had been a CFO. And in Mark Lamberti's eyes, I was being narrowed down because of my colour and being female," explained Chowan during her court testimony.

She said she felt that her achievements were not recognised, "apart from the fact that I am now being objectified in terms of being a female empowerment equity candidate".

Chowan subsequently wrote a letter to then Imperial Group Chairperson Thulani Gcabashe, complaining about her treatment.

He replied, promising an investigation.

In a separate letter of complaint, Chowan detailed the comments Janse van Rensburg had made about the colour of her car matching her skin colour.

She was then given a letter suspending her during the investigation; yet, none of the other employees that were affected by the investigation, were subject to the same action.

The subsequent investigation, which was carried out by the same firm that advised the company on the suspension procedures, found her allegations "completely without foundation"' and "devoid of substance".

Justified 'racial, gender discrimination'

A letter from Gcabashe announced that although her grievances were now dismissed, disciplinary procedures against her would be implemented for the apparent abuse of the grievance process.

Subsequently, following this disciplinary action, she was dismissed with immediate effect.

In his ruling, Judge Meyer found that "Ms Chowan’s inference of racial and gender discrimination against her…. was justified".

Her claim for damage to her dignity was proven on both a subjective and objective basis, he affirmed.

Subjectively: "She was extremely upset, humiliated, degraded and objectified in terms of being a female empowerment equity candidate, without recognition for the fact that she was a professional chartered accountant with extensive experience and achievements," explained Judge Meyer.

On an objective basis, it could also be accepted that any "reasonable person" would have felt the same injury to dignity that she did.

"Ms Chowan has established the common law requirements for her dignity claim to succeed.  Imperial and Mr Lamberti are liable jointly and severally for Ms Chowan’s damages, as quantified in due cause, as a result of the impairment of her dignity."

The exact amount of damages to be paid will be established either through mutual agreement between the parties or through a court process.

The defendants have also been ordered to pay Chowan's cost of suit, including that of her two counsel.

Earlier this year, Lamberti was appointed to the Eskom board. In January, Fin24 reported that Lamberti denied claims that the case left him "under a cloud".

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