Fired while on pregnancy-related leave, university employee advances bias claims

Filed under: News |

By Joy Waltemath

By David Yucht, J.D.

Citing a supervisor’s disparaging and hostile comments about the pregnancy of a university program coordinator whose employment was not renewed while she was on leave, a federal court in the District of Columbia found she stated claims for interference, retaliation, and discrimination under the D.C. Family Medical Leave Act (DCFMLA), the D.C. Human Rights Act, and Title VII. Accordingly, the court denied the university’s motion to dismiss (Holmes v. University of the District of Columbia, March 23, 2017, Moss, R.).

Although the employee’s position was funded by grants, she was assured that her job was permanent for all practical purposes and it had been funded continuously for approximately 30 years. In November 2013, the employee began working for a new supervisor. Two months later, she learned she was pregnant. Because she had previously suffered several miscarriages, her doctors considered her pregnancy to be “high risk.” At a subsequent staff meeting, and before she intended to announce her pregnancy, her supervisor pointed at her abdomen and asked “Is there something you need to tell me?” The supervisor followed with intrusive questions making the employee feel uncomfortable.

Irresponsible. The employee believed the supervisor had expressed that she was irresponsible for having a baby out of wedlock. In front of coworkers, the supervisor stated she “would never have considered having a baby when she was living with a roommate or in her parents’ home” and that, “by the time [the supervisor] had a baby, she was married and she and her husband had a house together.”

The employee took a pre-approved sick day for doctors’ appointments. After the appointments, her supervisor questioned the need for a full day off. The employee disclosed that her pregnancy was high-risk. The supervisor, thereupon, interrogated her to make sure she was not “abusing her leave.” Although she had not indicated that she was unable to perform her job, the supervisor encouraged the employee to take FMLA leave immediately. Fearing that she was being pushed out, she responded that it was unnecessary for her to take FMLA and preferred to wait until the baby was born.

Leave. Eventually, the employee was placed on bed rest to prevent premature delivery. Accordingly, she requested FMLA leave. HR approved her request and advised that her job was protected.

While on leave, she saw an online notice for her job. She contacted an HR officer, who expressed concern and surprise but could not provide her with any information. Shortly after giving birth, she received an email from her supervisor informing her that the university “was not renewing her appointment.” No reason for the termination was provided. The position was not defunded; she was replaced with a male employee. She sued under the DCFMLA and for discrimination under DC municipal regulations.

DCFMLA interference. The court refused to dismiss the employee’s DCFMLA interference claim. It was not impressed by the university’s argument that, under D.C. law, the university was not obligated to renew her appointment. The court found that at best, the university demonstrated that it could have declined to extend the employee’s appointment. But nothing established that the university would have done so if the employee had not taken medical leave. They had renewed her appointment as a matter of course in the past, and she had at all times ably performed her job.

Retaliation/discrimination. The court also refused to dismiss the employee’s remaining claims. The court was impressed by the specific facts she alleged to show her supervisor publicly embarrassed her for being pregnant; that she expressed disapproval of having a child while not married to her child’s father; that she attacked the employee for using a routine sick day for pregnancy-related doctors’ appointments; that she questioned her about her sensitive medical condition; that the supervisor had no legitimate reason for these hostile actions; and that she failed to identify any reason for declining to renew the employee’s employment despite her satisfactory job performance. These factors were sufficient to persuade the court to sustain all of the employee’s retaliation and discrimination claims.

Disagreeing with the university, the court found that temporal proximity was sufficient at the pleading stage to support a claim of retaliation.Moreover, the court was critical of the university’s argument that since her appointment had expired on its own terms, the employee could not prove causation. The decision not to renew her appointment was an adverse employment action. If the university undertook that action for discriminatory reasons, it was liable.

As to her pregnancy discrimination claim, the court found that despite the university’s assertion otherwise, that there was no need for the employee to allege the university treated other similarly situated employees not in her protected class more favorably under the same factual circumstances.

Also rejected was the university’s argument concerning disability discrimination. The university contended that the operative date of its adverse employment decision was not when it decided to terminate the employee, but rather when her termination became effective. Thus, because the termination did not formally become effective until after the birth of her child, the employee was not disabled at the time of her termination and therefore could not invoke the ADA. This argument, said the court, ignored the two basic elements of a disability discrimination claim: (i) an employee suffered an adverse employment action (ii) because of the employee’s disability.

Marital status/family responsibility discrimination. When read in the light most favorable to the employee, the complaint alleged a plausible claim that the supervisor discriminated against her because she was pregnant but not married. That was sufficient to state a claim for discrimination based on marital status, said the court, finding the analysis was similar for the family responsibility claim. There was no need for the employee to allege the existence of similarly situated employees who were treated differently.

Source:: Fired while on pregnancy-related leave, university employee advances bias claims


List your business in the premium web directory for free This website is listed under Human Resources Directory