A woman who has been called the “Erin Brockovich of Bradford” for taking her employer to court without legal representation and winning has said she has been overwhelmed by the “unexpected” response.
Donna Patterson, 38, was awarded £60,000 at a tribunal after arguing that the supermarket chain Morrisons had discriminated against her when she returned to work after maternity leave.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour: “The attention and the coverage has been really unexpected. I mean, I knew what happened was wrong. There were lots of different incidents that led up to me raising a claim, and individually they probably don’t sound like a huge deal.
“When you’re in an environment where that kind of behaviour happens a lot, you end up questioning yourself, whether you’re overreacting or making a big deal out of something. But then, when you cumulatively look at them all together, you think: ‘This can’t just be me. I can’t be overreacting.’”
Patterson said two main issues led to her complaint: Morrisons rescinded a job offer to become a confectionary buyer after she revealed she was pregnant; and when she returned from maternity leave she was expected to work a full-time job despite being contracted only for part-time hours and pay.
After taking sick leave due to stress, she unsuccessfully pursued an internal complaint before moving to an employment tribunal. She opted to represent herself after deciding that lawyers, who had given her estimates of at least £300 an hour, would be too expensive.
Her case resembles that of Erin Brockovich in the US, who was working as a paralegal when she realised people were getting sick in the same area, leading her to take on Pacific Gas and Electric. She secured a $333m settlement for her town, Hinkley in southern California, in 1997. The case was turned into a film starring Julia Roberts in 2000.
Patterson said that working with the Pregnant Then Screwed campaign group and reading up on comparable cases – including that of Helen Larkin, who won a maternity discrimination and unfair dismissal claim against the cosmetics company Liz Earle – helped her understand how the tribunal would proceed, what tactics her employers’ solicitor would use, and the language of legal representation – including how to cross-examine eight witnesses.
Like Larkin, Patterson has set up an organisation to support people planning to self-represent in cases against their employers.
Patterson said she had found the run-up to the tribunal “gruelling” and felt “really overwhelmed and was questioning myself”, spending late nights preparing the case and feeling “like I had nothing left in me”.
She said she was spurred on by a desire to send a strong signal to Morrisons that “I fundamentally disagreed with how they had treated me and I felt I had been failed”, and the knowledge that she needed to feel that “I gave it my best shot”. She was further reassured by the fact that the judge in her case “seemed to be as outraged as I was”.
She said she felt flattered by the comparison with Brockovich. “I loved the film – it’s brilliant. It feels a little bit strange to be compared to someone like that who I looked up to and really admired, but I guess what I hope is that just like I did with the likes of Helen Larkin and the others I read about, that other people, women and men, will read about my case and think: ‘I’ve got an opportunity here – if she can do it, I can do it,’ which is the mentality I had.”
Patterson said if the supermarket moved forward with plans to appeal, she would represent herself again because of “the unknown costs involved”.
A Morrisons spokesperson said: “The happiness and wellbeing of our colleagues is a fundamental part of our culture and welcoming mothers back from maternity leave in a thoughtful, consensual and decent way is incredibly important to us. However, we don’t accept that we acted in an unfair way in this case and believe a number of the facts have been misrepresented and we are considering an appeal.”