By Jonathan Stempel
NEW YORK (Reuters)—Pfizer Inc said its fellowship program for minorities serves the public interest, as the drugmaker defends against a lawsuit by a group of medical professionals that claims the program illegally excludes whites and Asian Americans.
In a Tuesday night filing, Pfizer urged a Manhattan federal judge to reject Do No Harm’s request for an injunction against filling the 2023 class for its Breakthrough Fellowship Program, which enrolls Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans.
Pfizer said the two-year-old program helps address historical discrimination in the workplace, and difficulties in recruiting, retaining and promoting minorities.
It aims to enroll 100 fellows by 2025, as part of a nine-year commitment to boost minority representation.
“There exists a strong public policy in favor of voluntary affirmative action plans,” Pfizer said. “At a minimum, the public interest favors preserving the status quo.”
Lawyers for Do No Harm did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
In its Sept. 15 complaint, Do No Harm said Pfizer’s program was “discriminatory on its face,” running afoul of several civil rights laws and violating a federal ban on racial discrimination by companies that accept government healthcare reimbursements.
Fellows receive two years of full-time jobs, fully-funded master’s degrees, and employment at New York-based Pfizer after completing the program.
Pfizer said Do No Harm lacked standing to sue and could not show irreparable harm, and that its claims would likely fail.
The fellowship program “does what Congress has encouraged and controlling law allows,” Pfizer said.
On Oct. 31, the Supreme Court will consider the future of affirmative action in higher education, as it hears arguments on race-conscious admissions programs at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina.
Among the precedents at risk is a 2003 Supreme Court decision where Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said race could be used as one factor among many to achieve diversity.
Pfizer quoted approvingly from O’Connor, who said “major American businesses have made clear that the skills needed in today’s increasingly global marketplace can only be developed through exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas, and viewpoints.”
The case is Do No Harm v. Pfizer Inc, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 22-07908.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Additional reporting by Alison Frankel; Editing by Diane Craft)