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Monday, May 27, 2024

UD won’t appeal unfair pay ruling

A lengthy legal battle that climaxed with a US court verdict finding Norway guilty of gender discrimination appears to finally have come to an end. Norway’s foreign ministry (Utenriksdepartementet, UD) has agreed to pay more than NOK 15 million in compensation to an American woman after initially paying her USD 30,000 less per year than her male colleague.

Employees of Norway's foreign ministry, including several diplomats, fell under a poor light as court proceedings detailed how they fended off Ellen Sue Ewald's claims  of gender discrimination. PHOTO:
Employees of Norway’s foreign ministry, including several diplomats, fell under a poor light as court proceedings detailed how they fended off Ellen Sue Ewald’s claims of gender discrimination. PHOTO:

Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported Friday that Ellen Sue Ewald, who filed suit against Norway after her inquiries and complaints about her salary and lack of benefits were initially ignored, will now receive USD 1.96 million (NOK 15.6 million) in a settlement that mostly will go towards covering her lawyers’ fees and court costs of USD 1.84 million. She will also receive USD 89,935 to cover loss of income plus USD 30,000 in compensation for the mental anguish suffered during her six-year fight for equal pay.

“This settlement sends a clear message to women around the world: ‘Don’t give up,'” Ewald’s lawyer, Sheila Engelmeier, told DN. “Continue the fight! This is a fantastic day for women.”

Engelmeier added that “Ellen won’t get rich” from the settlement, but her costs will be covered. That’s important, Engelmeier said, to ensure that plainitiffs don’t risk “drowning in costs” when trying to win redress from “powerful” opponents.

‘Glad and relieved’
In this case, Ewald’s powerful opponent was the Norwegian government and specifically its foreign ministry and embassy in Washington DC. DN reported that the settlement between Ewald and representatives of the Norwegian government was reached Thursday afternoon local time in the US.

“I’m incredibly glad and relieved,” Ewald told DN shortly after the settlement was agreed and signed. Ewald had won her case against the Norwegian government in a US federal court in Minneapolis and been awarded compensation for damages and legal costs amounting to around USD 2.4 million, but the verdict was pending appeal. The foreign ministry ultimately opted against filing an appeal and further increasing its already substantial legal costs.

That opened up for the settlement, which contains language, though, that Norway admits no guilt regarding Ewald’s claims that she also was harassed and treated in a derogatory manner by diplomats at Norway’s embassy in Washington DC and other employees of the Norwegian foreign ministry, because of her claims for equal pay.  Court documents included emails in which the Norwegian diplomat who now serves as Norway’s ambassador to Spain referred to Ewald as “vår venninne” (our girlfriend) and proposed that “we give her the minimum” when she was due for a raise. The US court did not uphold Ewald’s harassment claims but the entire case, which began not long after Ewald was hired in 2008, has been called an “embarrassment” for Norwegian authorities, and extremely expensive as well.

Ministry opted to ‘avoid a lengthy appeal’
DN reported that it had received an email from foreign ministry spokesman Frode Overland Andersen in which he wrote that Ewald’s legal complaint against Norway was difficult for everyone involved. He claimed that the ministry had taken her complaints seriously and had, based on the federal court ruling, agreed to settle “to avoid a lengthy appeals process for both sides.”

Andersen stressed once again that the US federal judge had dismissed Ewald’s claims of harassment, and he claimed her Norwegian employers had hired her “in good faith,” also regarding her salary. Ewald was paid USD 70,000 a year and initially was denied health insurance coverage for both herself and her Norwegian husband, investor and entrepreneur Terje Mikalsen. Her male colleague, hired at the same time to advance Norway’s interests in the US, was paid USD 100,000 and received health insurance for himself and his family. Embassy claims that Ewald and her husband didn’t qualify for the health insurance later proved to be wrong, and she later received both coverage and compensation for premiums she’d paid herself. Andersen of the foreign ministry claimed in his email to DN that the ministry still believes the difference in salary was “well-founded” and based on professional considerations, but it understood that the US court did not find that to be well-documented.

Case cost Norway millions
The case has cost the Norwegian state an estimated NOK 35 million, given the settlement plus all of the Norwegians’ legal costs in trying to defend themselves. The ministry has been under criticism at home for not only paying Ewald less in the first place but over how it handled the case, which was expensive and arguably has harmed Norway’s reputation as a country that prides itself on being a forerunner in gender equality. The case also began and mostly played out during the former left-center government led by the Labour Party, which also profiles itself as a champion of gender equality.

The current Conservatives’ led government inherited the case and clearly decided to cut the state’s losses, settle and put the case behind them. Ewald told DN she was grateful for the support she had received in both the US and Norway. She now works as a partner in a company that helps Norwegian companies establish themselves in the US Midwest. “Now I can finally move forward, and use my energy on positive things,” Ewald told DN. Berglund



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