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Novartis unit hit with $110 million gender discrimination suit

By Daniel Wiessner

(Reuters) - A new $110 million (74.6 million pounds) lawsuit filed on Tuesday claims a U.S. division at Swiss drugmaker Novartis (NOVN.VX) has routinely denied female employees equal pay and promotional opportunities, five years after the pharmaceutical giant was hit with a nine-figure jury verdict over similar claims.

The proposed class action suit filed in U.S. federal court in Manhattan says Texas-based Alcon Laboratories Inc, which was acquired by Novartis in 2010, maintains a "boy's club atmosphere" that is hostile to women and bars them from leadership positions.

An spokeswoman at Alcon, which specializes in eyecare products, deferred questions to Novartis Corp, which did not immediately return a request for comment.

A U.S. jury in 2010 ordered Novartis to pay more than $250 million in a separate class action that alleged widespread gender discrimination. At the time, it was the largest award in an employment discrimination case in U.S. history.

The company at the time said it would adopt reforms to prevent discrimination and retaliation against employees who complained.

The plaintiffs in Tuesday's suit, Elyse Dickerson and Susan Orr, say the company violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits gender discrimination by employers, and the U.S. Equal Pay Act.

"For years, the company paid them less than similarly-situated men, discriminated against them in assignments and other career-enhancing opportunities, and denied them promotions in favour of ... men," the suit says.

Dickerson said she was fired from her post as a global director for complaining about inequities at the company, and is seeking $10 million and her job back.

Orr, a research scientist, said the lack of promotions forced her to resign and is seeking at least $100 million on behalf of a proposed class of thousands of female Alcon employees.

In its most recent annual report released in January, Novartis said it has "continued to focus on the promotion of women." Tuesday's suit, however, claims the company has no plan in place to address gender issues at Alcon.

Dickerson and Orr are represented by the national class action law firm Sanford Heisler Kimpel, which also brought the earlier suit against Novartis.

The case is Dickerson v. Novartis Corp, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, No. 1:15-cv-1980.

(Reporting by Daniel Wiessner in Albany; Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and G Crosse)