LOS ANGELES – Gina Quatrine is a single mother of three, and the owner/founder of a furniture business that employs 145 people, most of them at her manufacturing facility in Compton, Calif. She is the kind of employer whom anyone would want to work for, because she is a strong woman who lives by her values.
Most of her workers are Mexican-Americans, and for each of them she provides health, dental and life insurance, fully paid by the company. She is frequently asked to speak to business and student groups as proof that a woman can succeed, and keep her values, in a highly competitive industry.
What she can't do is get her homeowner's insurance company, USAA, to return her calls, much less pay her claim. Only a man could do that.
Gina had been paying home insurance premiums to USAA for 15 years when, in April of last year, while in the middle of a small home addition, a water main line ruptured in front of her home.
At first, Gina, being the person she is, figured she could fix it without having to file a claim with her insurance company. She brought in blowers and heaters and spent countless hours engaged in "old-fashioned physical labor," trying to undo the damage to her home.
But after three weeks of this, with the plaster walls crumbling to the floor and electrical switches leaking water, she called USAA to file a property loss claim.
She made that phone call one year and two days ago. Since then, she has spent all of her savings, taken the maximum allowable loan on her 401(k) plan and turned to relatives to borrow money.
It has cost her $350,000 she didn't have to take her home down to its original wooden studs and build it back up to what exists now, an almost livable state. And the insurance company has not only not paid her what it owes, but it has treated her like dirt.
After that first phone call in April, Gina called nine more times — and got no response. At the time, she and her children had no place to live and were shuttling between rentals and relatives.
After five months of being ignored, Gina asked one of her employees, a man, to call for her. His call was returned the following day. The person on the other line, assuming the man was her husband, gave him the name of an adjuster to work on the case.
Gina called the adjuster three times before he would agree to meet with her and look at her house. What he saw was a total wreck. His response was to demand that she provide 80 hours worth of paperwork documenting every aspect of a loss that was apparent from simply seeing it. Then he, too, disappeared. As for housing for her and her children, she was told it was her problem.
Four more months passed. Nearly a year after her house was destroyed, having received absolutely no support from her insurance company and spending all her own money to try to fix her house, Gina broke down and hired a lawyer.
The higher-ups at the company, who got involved only because the lawyer did, professed shock at her treatment. At the same time they accused her of lying about the number of times she had unsuccessfully sought to get their attention. So Gina dug out her cell phone records, which documented the weeks and months of unanswered calls.
At that point, the senior adjuster insisted that she provide additional paperwork documenting the damage, although he acknowledged that assessing damage was something adjusters usually do, not devastated homeowners.
So Gina took a week's vacation to sit in her office for 60 hours and provide every bit of documentation she had. She sent it off to the address on the adjuster's card, along with a note expressing the even greater urgency of her situation.
Only days before she sent in the paperwork, at a routine pediatrician's visit, Gina's son was diagnosed with Type 1 insulin-dependent diabetes. She spent the next six days with him at Children's Hospital, trying to stabilize his condition.
The hospital explained that the standard practice in California in the case of a child newly diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes was for Social Services to do a home visit at a time of their choosing to ensure that the child was receiving the care he or she needed at home, since without it such children can die.
So with her package of information, Gina sent an urgent message. Her house was a disaster, half finished, wires everywhere. She needed the check from the insurance company to finish the repairs. Social Services could come at any time, and despite her best efforts the condition of her house might raise questions about her fitness.
The packet was returned. The address the adjuster had given her on his card was, he finally mentioned, non-deliverable.
And then nothing, again. She called three more times, explaining that her situation was urgent, given her son's diagnosis and the possibility that Social Services could come at any time. She was out of money to finish the repairs, there were extension cords hanging everywhere, doors and windows that could not be closed, and she was desperate.
No one returned her calls.
So she went back to her lawyer six weeks later, and he went back to the company, which attacked her for taking too long to fill out the paperwork.
Finally, she received her first check. It was made out to Gina Quatrine, unmarried woman, and her bank. Her marital status was in the address window. She needed the bank's permission to cash the check. But the bank wouldn't sign off. It said it needed to send it to the corporate office, and they would determine how it would be spent.
Gina walked out with the check in her pocket, overwhelmed by rage. And that is where things stand.
When she was married, her husband's expensive motorcycle was stolen. He still owed money on it to the bank. He called the very same insurance company and received a check for the full value, made out solely to him, eight days later.
Gina still has the check that the bank wouldn't cash in her pocket. At this point, she is more determined to fight the discrimination she has faced than to keep crawling and begging.
When she walked out of the bank, Gina knew what she had to do.
"It was at that moment, when I knew they had purposefully pulled one over on me again, gyrations they would never dream of doing to a man in business. Certainly not a powerful man with his own company.
"I am returning their check. It is far more important now to return to them their check and begin to open dialogue of another vein."
I wish I could say that I hadn't gone through a similar experience when my condo was flooded, but I did. My apartment was destroyed and I had to play lawyer/media maven to get anyone to respond to my desperate calls. I, too, enlisted a male friend who was also a lawyer when I just couldn't take it anymore. So, I fear, have many other single women.
It shouldn't take a man to get a woman what she's entitled to or, as in my case, a lawyer with media and political connections. But it will, unless we have the kind of courage Gina does to stand up and be heard. Let the dialogue begin.
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Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.
Estrich's books include the just published “Soulless,” “The Case for Hillary Clinton,” “How to Get Into Law School,” “Sex & Power,” “Real Rape,” “Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System” and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women.”
She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the “Blue Streak” column for FOXNews.com.
Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California and a member of the Board of Contributors of USA Today. She writes the "Portia" column for American Lawyer Media and is a contributing editor of The Los Angeles Times. She was appointed by the president to serve on the National Holocaust Council and by the mayor of the City of Los Angeles to serve on that city's Ethics Commission.
A woman of firsts, she was the first woman president of the Harvard Law Review and the first woman to head a national presidential campaign (Dukakis). Estrich is committed to paving the way for women to assume positions of leadership.
Books by Estrich include "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Dealing with Dangerous Offenders." Her book "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women," is a departure from her other works, encouraging women to take care of themselves by engaging the mind to fight for a healthy body. Her latest book, The Los Angeles Times bestseller, "Sex & Power," takes an impassioned look at the division of power between men and women in the American workforce, proving that the idea of gender equality is still just an idea.