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Weight triggered firings, lawsuit says

Wednesday, December 23, 1998

By CHRISTOPHER MUMMA
Staff Writer

Two women filed a lawsuit against Farmland Dairies on Tuesday, saying the company fired one of them because she weighs 395 pounds and then dismissed the other because she had refused to fire the obese woman.

The complaint, filed in Superior Court in Bergen County, claims that dairy owner Jacob Goldman personally ordered Patricia Sommer in June to fire clerk Ann Marie LaMantia, after he spotted her in a company parking lot. Sommer was LaMantia's supervisor at the time.

"He said, 'Who's that fat girl walking across the parking lot?' " Sommer said Tuesday. "She's going to fall in the parking lot and sue us."

Sommer, of Lodi, did not fire LaMantia then. Two weeks later, when asked a second time to do so, Sommer told the manager that LaMantia, who had been on the job for several months, was a good worker and that she would not fire her, the complaint says.

LaMantia, of Wallington, who lives across the street from the dairy, was then fired for "poor performance," the complaint says. Two weeks later, Sommer -- who had been at the company for several months -- also was let go.

The complaint seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, saying LaMantia was the victim of discrimination and that Sommer was retaliated against by the company. The 82-year-old Goldman, who is Farmland's founder, also was named in the complaint.

The dairy issued a statement Tuesday denying the allegations and asserting that "any visitor to Farmland would see immediately that we strictly adhere to an anti-discrimination policy and do not discriminate in any way, shape, or form."

In interviews Tuesday, the women said otherwise.

"I knew that what had happened to me and what had happened to Ann Marie was illegal," said the 40-year-old Sommer, speaking from the New York offices of their lawyers.

LaMantia, 33, said she was "totally devastated" by the events.

"I've always been a heavy person, and I don't care," LaMantia said. "I've been on softball teams, in bowling leagues. I like to hike and camp. I never would refuse to try something. But now I wonder if people will stare at me. I have no self-esteem anymore. They crushed me."

LaMantia said she is grateful to Sommer, who phoned LeMantia the night she was fired to explain what she knew.

"She's like my hero," LaMantia said. "I'm indebted to her for life for this."

LaMantia worked for Sommer in the Order Department, which processes dairy orders to local supermarkets.

Sommer said her initial conversation with Goldman about LaMantia took place on June 1. After asking about the "fat girl walking across the parking lot," Goldman explained his reasoning, Sommer said.

"He said, 'Look, you don't marry someone who's fat,' " Sommer said. "You marry them, they get fat. Then, you either stick it out with them or move on."

Sommer said she interpreted that analogy to mean that "you don't hire fat people." After explaining to Goldman that LaMantia was "my best worker," Sommer said she then walked away.

Two weeks later, Sommer said she was called into the office of Steve Resch, a company manager. Resch ordered Sommer to return to his office later that day and that both he and Sommer would fire LaMantia.

But instead of returning, Sommer said she simply went home. Two weeks after that, Resch fired her, saying, "You don't help me," Sommer said.