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Juries and the EEOC Take Aim at Pregnancy Discrimination

Written by Jessica Catlow

Back in the summer, we wrote about the Equal Opportunity Commission’s release of its updated enforcement guidance on pregnancy discrimination claims under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.  Under the PDA, discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth or related conditions are a form of sex discrimination.  Two recent cases highlight that both juries and the EEOC intend to take pregnancy discrimination claims seriously.

In California, a former AutoZone employee sued AutoZone for retaliation and sex discrimination claiming she was fired after complaining about a demotion she received after giving birth.  The plaintiff, Rosario Juarez, alleged that AutoZone had a “glass ceiling” for women, noting that only 10% of the stores in the San Diego, CA area had female managers. After she complained of discrimination, she was promoted to store manager in October 2004.  In November 2005 she informed her district manager she was pregnant, and he urged her to step down because she would not be able to handle her responsibilities as a store manager while being a mother at the same time.  After her child was born in May 2005, she claims she continued to be discriminated against.  She complained, but the complaint was ignored and she was demoted.  She complained about the demotion, too.  She was fired about a year later after she was blamed for the fact that a customer service representative allegedly misplaced cash from the register.  The jury awarded her more than $185 million in damages.  Notably, the jury awarded the plaintiff more than her requested award of $160 million.

Separately, the EEOC recently commenced an action against the Crooked Creek & Creekside Bar and Grille in a Michigan federal court.  In that case, a pregnant woman applied for a job as a food server at the restaurant.  According to the EEOC, the applicant had prior experience working in a restaurant.  Her first interview went well and she was asked to return for a second interview, but when she disclosed her pregnancy, the restaurant refused to consider her further for the job.  She then filed a complaint with the EEOC.  The EEOC conducted an investigation and issued a letter of determination finding reasonable cause to believe that the restaurant discriminated refused to hire the applicant because she was pregnant.  Following the restaurant’s refusal to enter into a conciliation agreement with the EEOC to eliminate the unlawful discriminatory practices and provide appropriate relief to the applicant, the EEOC commenced the action, which remains pending.

As a reminder, the PDA requires that employers treat women affected by pregnancy or related medical conditions the same way they treat non-pregnant applicants or employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work. Human resource professionals and in-house counsel would do well to ensure to train their managers to make all employment-related decisions based upon legitimate business reasons and to make sure that all requirements are job-related and consistent with business needs.

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