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Does the Young Woman Suing Getty Foundation Have a Case?

Carolina Miranda of the LA Times seems to think so. Her article published on May 10 suggests that if the case gets any traction it could set a dangerous precedent for programs, institutions, who want to promote cultural diversity in employment.

While media outlets and bloggers alike have been quick to treat this story as another opportunity to wag the finger at finicky millenials, who in the blogosphere are both hyper sensitive to issues of racism and privilege, and inured to them. Miranda appears to be alone in seeing a little beyond the horizon, raising the issue of what will happen if a seemingly frivolous lawsuit gets taken seriously by the court.

The case in question is still a complaint at this point, filed on April 29 in Los Angeles Superior Court, on behalf of plaintiff Samantha Niemann, against Getty Foundation. Niemann, a Southern Utah University student had applied to the foundation's competitive Multicultural Undergraduate Internship program and was rejected, she claims, for being white. The Getty Foundation partners with art institutions throughout LA County to provide interns from underrepresented groups with valuable work experience and a small stipend. According to their website, students eligible for the internship should be:

of a group underrepresented in museums and visual arts organizations, including, but not limited to, individuals of African American, Asian, Latino/Hispanic, Native American, or Pacific Islander descent.–src.

Niemann, who says she is of German/Italian/Irish descent, contests that not only are people like her underrepresented in the museum world, but also that her academic record should have netted her a position. Representatives of the Getty have been quick to point out that the internships' requirements are not race-based, but based on proportional representation in arts jobs.

It will be important to note that a fairly recent demographic study conducted by the Mellon Foundation shows that women hold 70% of high level art museum jobs and 84% of men and women in those jobs are white. This study is not all-encompassing, but it does seem to indicate that white women are well enough represented in fine art institutions.

Carolina Miranda's bigger point is that if a judge sets a precedent that favors Niemann's claim, then institutions who want to address the issue of racial and cultural representation in employment and education through private means will have their hands tied with discrimination suits.

Particularly of concern is the fact that Getty Foundation is a private institution using their own money to fund internships. Lawsuits similar to this one are, for the most part, filed against public colleges by white prospective students who suspect their admission was hampered by their race.

Niemann's complaint is filed for damages due to discrimination, retaliation, and harassment based on race or national origin, alleging violations of CA code 12940, which bars discrimination in employment and training. Ultimately facts in this case are scant, and the case itself remains in its most embryonic stage. The topic of racial inequality in employment and training is certainly a tricky one, and while federal and state laws have severely limited once popular affirmative action programs, it is difficult to read the above-quoted eligibility requirements and not see the similarities. What we can do as citizens of the certainly multi-cultural greater Los Angeles, to address employment inequality, is a topic for much discussion. And this case, funny and inconsequential as it seems now, may be the first murmurs of where that society is heading on this issue.

Neither Samantha Niemann nor her lawyers, of Reisner & King LLP, have made a public comment as of this publication.

As always, thank you for reading. If you have suffered from discrimination and harassment on the job, then don't hesitate to contact one of our employment lawyers today.

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