A California woman has filed a lawsuit against her former employer, alleging that it fired her after learning that she was pregnant. She claims that the pregnancy was not the primary reason for her termination, but rather the fact that she engaged in sexual activity while not married. She acknowledges that this went against a “community covenant” that her employer, a Christian college, required her to sign when it hired her. Her lawsuit asserts causes of action under state law for wrongful termination.
The plaintiff worked as a financial specialist at San Diego Christian College. She alleges that a supervisor asked her if she was pregnant in October 2012, and fired her when she confirmed her pregnancy. The school then allegedly offered her job to her then-fiancé, who is now her husband, despite the obvious inference that he had also engaged in premarital sex. The couple is expecting a child in June 2013.
The school reportedly required the plaintiff to sign a two-page “community covenant” when it hired her. NBC Los Angeles reports that the covenant, which both students and employees must sign, prohibits “sexually immoral behavior including premarital sex,” “Prejudice based on race, sex, or socioeconomic status,” and other acts deemed unacceptable. The covenant provides for “appropriate action” if a violation occurs, including “withdrawal from the community,” but does not specify any consequences. The plaintiff acknowledged signing the covenant, telling NBC’s “Today” that she “needed a job in this economy and…never thought that anything would happen.”
The lawsuit, filed in San Diego Court Superior Court, alleges that the college unlawfully discriminated against the plaintiff based on her gender. Media reports do not indicate if the lawsuit includes allegations of pregnancy discrimination, but the plaintiff could probably make a plausible claim that she received disparate treatment based on her pregnancy. The school could claim breach of contract as the grounds for termination, but gender discrimination, which may include pregnancy discrimination, seems clear from her allegation that the school offered her job to her fiancé. By all accounts, neither the plaintiff nor her husband denied sexual activity. If her husband was not already an employee of the school, he was not in breach of the covenant, but the disparate treatment of a female employee and a male job candidate still seems plausible.
Most states, as well as federal law, prohibit discrimination in employment based on pregnancy. The New York State Human Rights Law and the New York City Human Rights Law include pregnancy as a protected category of gender discrimination. The federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Rights Act of 1964 to include pregnancy. The school’s religious affiliation may offer it some protection from liability under anti-discrimination law, if it can apply the ministerial exception. This is the principle, based on the First Amendment’s freedom of religion provisions, exempting “the employment relationship between a religious institution and one of its ministers” from anti-discrimination law. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 132 S. Ct. 694, 701 (2012). The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the ministerial exception applies to teachers at a religious school, id. at 710, but it is not clear if the exception would apply to a financial specialist like the plaintiff.
At Phillips & Associates, we work to safeguard the rights of employees and job seekers in the New York City area who have experienced pregnancy discrimination and other forms of employment discrimination in violation of federal, state, and local laws. Contact us today online or at (212) 248-7431 to schedule a free and confidential consultation.
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Policy Preventing Pregnant UPS Employee from Returning to Work Based on Lifting Restriction Upheld by Court, New York Employment Attorney Blog, February 19, 2013
Lawsuit Claims New York Hotel Denied Manager Maternity Leave After She Gave Birth in a Guest Room, New York Employment Attorney Blog, January 9, 2013
New York Cosmetics Company Sued for Pregnancy Discrimination by Former Project Manager, New York Employment Attorney Blog, December 27, 2012