Pregnancy and Workplace Discrimination: A High-Risk Combination
When we think of workplace discrimination, we tend to think of aggression based on factors like race, religion or national origin. But there is another form of discrimination that sometimes occurs on the job: the unfair treatment of pregnant women.
Many employers believe an employee’s pregnancy will cost the company money or interrupt production. So they concoct a “pretext,” or false reason, to terminate such women. This sort of discriminatory behavior is every bit as illegal as the more common types of workplace discrimination.
This was borne out by the nearly three-quarters-of-a-million dollar verdict obtained in the Pima County Superior Court by MC&R attorneys Douglas H. Clark, Jr. and myself, in 1998.
In this case, the female employee started at Nova Financial in Tucson as a clerk and, over the course of five years, worked her way up to Office Manager. Part of her responsibilities included bookkeeping and the payroll. She was thought of as a hard worker and a valued employee.
In October 1996, the employee announced that she was pregnant. This news was not well received and Nova did not even have a formal pregnancy leave policy, so the employee drew up a pregnancy leave agreement which the president signed. She then trained other employees as “backup” so that they could perform her job responsibilities while she was away.
Unfortunately, the employee’s leave came much sooner, and was to last much longer, than expected. During the first week of January 1997, she was rushed to the hospital with premature labor problems. The doctors ordered her to bed rest at home until she could safely deliver the baby.
During this time, while the employee was fighting for her life and the life of her baby, a significant bookkeeping error occurred which affected the company’s payroll and bank accounts. Nova blamed the employee and claimed that the error had caused substantial embarrassment and was, in fact, a threat to the company. The employee was terminated.
Attorney Doug Clark and I convinced the jury that the reasons for the firing were a “pretext” and that the real motivation was to avoid paying the employee while she was out on pregnancy leave. We argued that “backup” employees were responsible for the transaction involving the error.
The employee’s case was bolstered by a tape recording we uncovered during the “discovery” process of litigation. Nova’s president had tape-recorded his “firing conversation” with the employee, in which he mentioned that he did not want to be responsible for her having a miscarriage because of too much pressure, and that she was not in a position right now to help the company.
After successfully delivering the baby, the employee looked for and eventually accepted a new job, but at a lower salary and with fewer benefits than she’d had at Nova.
Doug Clark and I, through expert testimony, illustrated how long these damages could be expected to continue into the future and what the value of those damages were in present day dollars.
The jury awarded the employee approximately $200,000 in “back pay” and “front pay” and $250,000 in punitive damages. They also awarded her approximately $200,000 in compensatory damages against another Nova employee who, it was established, was involved in the false premise for the pregnant employee’s firing. By law, the employee was also awarded her court costs and attorney’s fees.
There is a lesson here for employers who may think they will save money by firing a pregnant employee: If their justification is not absolutely legitimate, such discriminatory behavior can end up costing the company a significant amount of money.