Accused: Imperial Group CEO Mark Lamberti is a respondent in a high court case in which Associated Motor Holdings, an Imperial subsidiary, is being sued by a former financial manager for alleged racial discrimination. Picture: MARTIN RHODES
Accused: Imperial Group CEO Mark Lamberti is a respondent in a high court case in which Associated Motor Holdings, an Imperial subsidiary, is being sued by a former financial manager for alleged racial discrimination. Picture: MARTIN RHODES

Associated Motor Holdings, a subsidiary of Imperial Holdings, is being sued for more than R23m by a former group financial manager who claims she was discriminated against because she is a black woman.

Adila Chowan claims she was dismissed from the company in 2015 after enduring humiliating insults directed at her by Imperial Group CEO Mark Lamberti, who, along with Associated Motors and its parent company, is a respondent in the matter being heard in the High Court in Johannesburg.

Chowan is also claiming liability for having been overlooked for the position of chief financial officer despite "several promises" to her by her former employers, only for the position to be awarded to Ockert Janse van Rensburg, a white male.

Adv Dali Mpofu SC, for Chowan, told the court on Monday that his client was victimised after her submission of a letter of complaint to the chairperson of the board at the time, detailing instances when her rights had been abused by executives in the company.

The letter was submitted in June 2015 and in it Chowan alleged that she had been subjected to racism and gender-based discrimination by the company’s executives. This had manifested in "unfair racial and gender discriminatory utterances", she wrote.

The submission of the letter triggered a series of events that resulted in Chowan’s suspension, followed by a disciplinary hearing and her dismissal.

The company’s directors dismissed Chowan after investigating her claims and concluding she had "set her employer up".

Standard Bank board chairman Thulani Gcabashe, the board chairman to whom Chowan had written, testified that the board had concluded after investigating her claims that she should be disciplined for failing to follow the company’s grievance procedure.

Unemployable

Gcabashe said though he had initially thought the accusations made by Chowan warranted further probing, a commissioned investigation found they were without merit, including her record of discriminatory statements by Lamberti, who allegedly told her she would not be promoted "despite the fact that she is a black woman and an affirmative action candidate".

But Gcabashe admitted to the court that the board reached its decision based on "oral summaries" provided by executives in Chowan’s absence.

Mpofu told the court that Gcabashe and his colleagues’ decision to dismiss his client was not only unlawful but unfair and impugned on her dignity and had implications for her rights to equality.

He also argued that the company’s actions made her unemployable and had defamed her.

Adv Nazeer Cassim SC, for the three respondents, tore apart Chowan’s financial claim against the company, arguing that the law made provision for, at best, a single month’s salary in such cases.

Cassim also challenged her submission that the calculated amount was based on her expectation that she would have spent at least 10 more years with the company, saying that belief was only "contemplated by her and not other parties".

He also questioned why Imperial Holdings was included in the litigation because Chowan was only contracted to Associated Motors.

The court is expected to hear further arguments that will mainly focus on the findings of the investigation report used for Chowan’s dismissal. The evidence provided by Gcabashe did not clearly set out the reasons why the board had opted to dismiss Chowan’s version of events, while utterances made against her by Lamberti seemed to have taken precedence.

Mpofu will also have to prove to the court that his client was indeed promised a promotion to the position of chief financial officer.

The high court trial is set to resume on Tuesday.

mahlakoanat@businesslive.co.za

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