Irina Kovalenko and Ksenia Mikhaylichenko, outside of Murmansk Regional Court. Photo courtesy of Ms. Mikhaylichenko’s Facebook page
July 11, 2018
It’s great to talk about cases in which you walloped the opposing counsel, the judges gave you a standing applause, and you galloped off on your steed to deliver more justice and do more good. Today, though, I would like to tell a different sory, a story in which you and your client are obviously in the right, but the system tells you, “Hang on, guys. We have our own way of doing things here. Goodbye.”
Irina graduated from the mechanics and mathematics department at the Peoples’ Friendship University (RUDN) and worked for a major company in Moscow. Then, for family reasons, she moved to Murmansk, where she faced a problem. No one wanted to hire her, explaining she was too well educated, had done internships abroad, and had experience working at a major company, which was way too cool for the folks in Murmansk.
Ultimately, Irina got a job at the Murmansk Regional Information Technology Center, a government-funded agency. Everything would have been great if the head of the place had not hit on Irina big time. When she rejected his advances, she faced harassment in the literal sense of the word: humiliation, insults, daily rants, and charges of incompetence. At the same time, this guy held drinking bouts at work. (Here is the proof.) I would remind you all this took place in a government-funded agency, paid for by our taxes.
Finally, the boss fired Irina. She filed complaints with the State Labor Inspectorate, the prosecutor’s office, and the Murmansk Regional Committee for Information Technology and Communications, which had founded the agency. They promised they would get to the bottom of the matter and get her her job back. Seven months went by, seven months during which Irina received medical treatment in Moscow for terrible headaches and panic attacks. She was prescribed heavy antidepressants.
Seven months later, her ex-boss was fired after five millions rubles went missing from the agency’s books. No one faced criminal charges, of course. On the contrary, the agency’s wonderful head was given severance pay.
Irina had been forgotten, however. She was told to take her case to court and seek justice there. Irina did go to court. At the preliminary hearing, the judge refused to hear the case, citing the statute of limitations.
I came on board during the appeal, but the case file from the hearing in the lower court immediately amazed me. Irina had filed for an adjournment, since the clinic in Moscow where she had been treated was slow in putting together the papers she needed, and so she had to fly to Moscow to retrieve the originals, meaning she needed at least a couple of days. But the judge would not have any of it.
At the appeals hearing, we tried to get all these papers admitted into evidence while thoroughly explaining all the circumstances of the case and Irina’s terrible state of health over the past seven months. Irina was still suffering from pneumonia and pyelonephritis, which we had also documented medically. The stone-faced judges rejected our motion, however.
The prosecutor at the appeals hearing made the biggest impression on me. Foaming at the mouth and raising her voice, she argued Irina had made everything up about the harassment and her health.
“She wasn’t a disabled person, so she could have gone to court.”
This is a direct quotation.
We lost our appeal. It has made me feel terrible. Our system could not care less what happens to women who suffer harassment at work. It is simply impossible to prove either that harassment took place or that it had something to do with a woman being fired.
There are only prosecutors screaming, “You’re pretending to be the victim in this case” so loudly everyone in the courtroom can hear it.
I feel terrible when female friends tell me how their bosses molest them at work more or less arrogantly. Complete strangers write to me with enviable regularity, asking me to advise them what to do if their boss asks them to go to his office after everyone leaves, or they will have to tender their resignations. I don’t know how to reply to them, because it would be a blatant lie to tell them that there are effective legal defenses and the Russian state will defend them.
Thanks to Alena Popova, who introduced me to Irina and had also been helping her all she can. Together we will definitely think of a way to win the case.
Everything is definitely going to be fine for Irina. It cannot be otherwise for fighters for justice like her[.]
Thanks to Elena Konte for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader