In a Title VII discrimination case, a worker can succeed in multiple possible ways. One is to provide direct evidence of discrimination. For example, if your boss finds out on Monday that you’re pregnant and, on Tuesday, sends you an email that says, “I just found out that you’re pregnant. Best of luck on a healthy pregnancy. Also, we don’t want pregnant workers so you’re fired, effective immediately,” then that’s direct evidence. As most experienced New York employment discrimination lawyers can tell you, though, obtaining that degree of blatant “smoking gun” proof is hard to do and rare.
As a result, many workers must rely on another method, called an “inference of discrimination.” Say that you tell your supervisor on Monday about your pregnancy. On Thursday, you receive a letter from Human Resources that says, “upon further review, we no longer believe that you have the capacity to perform all of the essential functions of your job, so we are terminating your employment, effective immediately.” That’s a potential example of an “inference of discrimination” situation.
The pregnancy discrimination case of S.S., an employee for the U.S. Postal Service, was an example of an “inference of discrimination” scenario where the worker succeeded.
In February 2016, the U.S. Postal Service hired S.S., who was pregnant at the time, to work in Brooklyn. Less than two weeks later, S.S.’s obstetrician issued a letter stating that the patient, who was approaching the third trimester of her pregnancy and had (according to the doctor) “nearly died” during a previous pregnancy, should be placed on “restricted duty, very light work.”
Later, the doctor clarified that S.S. should only lift up 10 pounds, only push and pull 30 pounds or less, and “only do limited stairs usage and bending,” and “sit, stand, [and] walk up to two hours.” The carrier’s supervisors took her off the schedule, allegedly because they had no work available that conformed to the doctor’s list of limitations.
By mid-March, S.S. filed a formal request for a reasonable accommodation. The employer held a meeting on S.S.’s request, but the committee that heard the request ruled against her. The committee said that there was no accommodation that the employer could provide that would allow her to “perform the essential functions” of her job.
Three months later, the Postal Service fired S.S., so she sued for pregnancy discrimination.
As noted above, S.S.’s case was one where she relied, in part, on an “inference of discrimination” to support her claim. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals, whose rulings control federal cases in New York, Connecticut, and Vermont, has for decades held that “inference of discrimination is a flexible [standard] that can be satisfied differently in differing factual scenarios.” The Second Circuit court has also stated that the amount of proof needed to satisfy the inference of discrimination standard is not just flexible but also “minimal.”
Examples of satisfaction of the inference of discrimination standard, according to the court, included cases where the employer replaces the plaintiff with someone outside his/her protected class who was similarly or less qualified than the plaintiff, the employer criticized “the plaintiff’s performance in ethnically degrading terms,” made “invidious comments about others in the employee’s protected group,” or gave “more favorable treatment [to] employees not in the protected group.”
The Importance of Timing in an ‘Inference of Discrimination’ Case
Another way to create an inference of discrimination is through timing or, as the court put it, the “sequence of events leading to the plaintiff’s discharge.” The hypothetical from the second paragraph of this post is an example of this. If you tell your employer on Monday that you’re pregnant and your employer fired you on Thursday, then a court may infer discriminatory motive based on the timing of those events (also known as “temporal proximity,”) even if the employer’s stated reasons for termination were non-discriminatory.
The facts in S.S.’s case also involved close temporal proximity. On Feb. 22, she presented her supervisor with her doctor’s letter recommending restricted duty. One day later, on Feb. 23, the employer sent her home without work, and continued doing so through Feb. 29. Those facts, the court concluded, supported the inference that the employer “was motivated, at least in part, by Plaintiff’s pregnancy when it removed” her from the work schedule and sent her home without pay.
Many people in New York choose — or need — to work during part or most of their pregnancies. Those that do should be judged on their work, not their pregnancy. If you’ve encountered adverse actions at work because you were working while pregnant, the skilled New York pregnancy discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates are here to help. We understand that pregnancy discrimination is not just illegal, it’s also wrong, and we are dedicated to helping pregnant workers fight for justice when they’ve been harmed by discrimination. To find out more, contact us online or at (833) 529-3476 to set up a free and confidential consultation today.