Wednesday, October 4, 2023
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Saudi Prince Must Pay for ‘Lady-Driver’ Bias

MINNEAPOLIS (CN) - Three women chauffeurs who were fired at the request of a Saudi prince have won a default judgment from a federal judge.

Gretchen Cooper, Barbara Herold and Lisa Boutelle sued Prince Abdul-Rahman bin Abdul-Aziz and the limousine companies that hired them in 2010 to transport the politician around Minnesota when he was visiting that fall.

In the three years since the complaint's filing, however, Abdul-Aziz has failed to respond to it, and Mohamed Elbashir, the owner of the limo companies, quickly stopped responding as well.

"This case has been in a state of suspended animation long enough," U.S. District Judge Joan Erickson wrote in a Nov. 4 ruling granting the default judgment.

According to the order, Abdul-Aziz had been a deputy defense minister when he led a party of Saudi Arabian nationals in a visit to Rochester, Minn., home of the Mayo Clinic.

In anticipation of the visit, the prince directed Elbashir to hire 40 drivers, to whom Elbashir and his companies provided cars, assignments and schedules, according to the order.

Jill Gaulding, lead counsel for the plaintiffs, said it was later made clear that exactly three women were hired for a specific reason: the group thought it would be "elegant" for women to drive "ladies and kids."

This "benevolent sexism," based on the assumption that women drive more cautiously and slowly than men, "sharply limited plaintiffs' employment opportunities," according a brief Gaulding filed in April.

The order notes that, after the three plaintiffs and the other drivers picked up the party at the airport and drove them to the hotel, "a witness at the hotel heard an unidentified male tell Nabil Hanna, a representative of [Elbashir's company], that Prince Abdul-Rahman's party wanted 'no women drivers.'"

Cooper says she was told to remove her things from the limo when she arrived at the hotel for work the next day, and a male driver replaced her.

"After Cooper asked for an explanation, Hanna told her that they were letting her go because the party did not want women drivers," Erickson wrote. "Boutelle and Herold were also replaced with male drivers."

The drivers sued under federal and state gender-discrimination laws, and they claimed tortious interference with a contract.

With the defendants having defaulted, Erickson said the claims must be accepted as fact.

The drivers have already settled with Elbashir's companies, according to the order, which says Elbashir has not been responsive except for his informal appearance at a single hearing at which he requested counsel.

"The complaint is clear that plaintiffs were discharged and replaced because of their sex," Erickson wrote. "It is not for the court to guess what defenses may have developed and been advanced had Elbashir appeared, conducted discovery, and filed briefs."

The plaintiffs have 21 days to brief the court on their losses as the result of the discrimination.

A filing the plaintiffs made in June says the drivers earned $100 daily for their service, plus tips, for several months of work on this job. Some of the drivers also secured future jobs as the result of their work on this trip, and Cooper said she received $50 daily in tips, expensive gifts and meals out during a similar prior job.

This places their wage loss as high as $15,000, according to the pleading, and does not account for emotional distress and possible punitive damages.

Gaulding is the co-founder of St. Paul-based Gender Justice, described on its website as "a nonprofit public interest law firm and an advocacy organization."

The attorney said service of the complaints was one of the biggest challenges, but the plaintiffs did eventually achieve it after the court approved an unconventional service via Facebook of Elbashir while he was out of the country. Prince Abdul-Rahman was eventually served by mail at his home address in Saudi Arabia.

"It's not actually easy to effect service on a Saudi prince, but, it took a lot of work, but were able to succeed," she said in a phone interview Thursday.

Gaulding would not disclose details of the settlements with the limo companies, but noted they would have to address whether there was remedy remaining after those settlements.

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