UPDATE 3-US judge allows Novartis bias lawsuit to proceed

(Adds more details of plaintiffs’ accusations)

NEW YORK, Aug 1 (Reuters) - A $200 million gender discrimination lawsuit filed against a U.S. unit of Novartis AG NOVN.VX by 19 women sales representatives can proceed as a class-action case, a federal judge has ruled.

The lawsuit, filed in 2004 in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, contends that women were discriminated against in pay and promotions, especially when they became pregnant. They are seeking back pay, damages and other compensation.

U.S. District Judge Gerard Lynch, in a ruling dated Tuesday, said the women could pursue their case collectively rather than as individuals.

The ruling “means that approximately 5,000 women -- maybe more -- around the country who are current or former employees of Novartis will be able to participate in a class trial in federal court,” said David Sanford, of law firm Sanford, Wittels & Heisler, LLP, who represents the plaintiffs.

The lawsuit was filed against Novartis Pharmaceuticals, a U.S. unit of the Swiss drug maker, as well as against the unit’s parent, Novartis Corp. In his ruling, Judge Lynch dismissed Novartis Corp. as a defendant, saying it could not be held liable for its subsidiary’s actions.

Novartis Pharmaceuticals has about 6,000 employees and is based in East Hanover, New Jersey.

The plaintiffs contend they received lower pay and lost out on promotions because they are women and in some cases were subjected to a sexually hostile work environment.

Among the allegations cited in the judge’s ruling were contentions by one saleswoman that her manager told her that he preferred not to hire young females, explaining, “‘First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes flex time and a baby carriage.’”

Another manager allegedly encouraged a woman to get an abortion, according to the court documents.

Other accusations include contentions by a woman that employees were urged during a training session to avoid getting pregnant. According to the court documents, the woman, who was five months pregnant at the time, contends that she drew the eye of the trainer, who said, “Oops, too late.”

Novartis spokesman Sheldon Jones said the company’s lawyers were reviewing the document.

Sanford said no trial date had been set but that he hoped to bring the case to trial next year.

The lawsuit originally sought more than $100 million in damages, which was later increased to more than $200 million in a revised complaint. (Reporting by Martha Graybow)