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New York School District Beats $4 Million Gender and Pregnancy Discrimination Suit

A federal jury recently found the former Superintendent of the East Greenbush Central School District did not meet her burden of proving she was fired because of her pregnancy and gender. As a result of the jury’s finding, the School District avoided paying on a seven-figure price tag.

The Plaintiff was Superintendent of the District since 2008.  Her most recent employment contract provided she would remain employed through June 2016.  She got pregnant with twins in 2014 and was out for maternity leave for almost 4 months after they were born prematurely.  Shortly after she returned to work in the spring of 2015, she was advised the District would not renew her contract.  The Plaintiff filed suit against the District, the Board of Education and several individual Board members, asserting claims under Title VII, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and a civil action under 42 U.S.C §1983 for deprivation of rights.

The Plaintiff’s main allegations were the District terminated her due to her exercising her right to take maternity leave and because of stereotypes associated with being a working mother with young children.  One specific allegation involved comments by Board Members about her ability to work after returning from maternity leave. The Board responded by asserting it had legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for not renewing her contract, including issues with Plaintiff’s failure to communicate, refusal to follow Board directives and strained relationships with Board Members and subordinates.

Only two of the Plaintiff’s claims survived summary judgement: her claim against the District and the Board under Title VII and the PDA, and her civil claim for deprivation of rights under 42 U.S.C §1983 against several individual Board Members.  The jury was quick to wipe out the remaining claims, however.  After a two-week trial and four hours of deliberation, the jury found the Plaintiff failed to establish by a preponderance of the evidence that her gender was a motivating factor in the District’s decision to not renew her contract.  The Plaintiff was seeking damages in excess of $4 million dollars – a payout the District happily avoided.

Employers should take this case as a lesson that even well-intentioned comments regarding someone’s ability to work after returning from leave might rub someone the wrong way.  Be cautious and step lightly when discussing someone’s disability or medical condition – be it pregnancy or anything else.  You never know what someone can construe as being discriminatory – even if it was never meant to be taken that way.  Secondly, this case serves as a reminder to document employee issues.  One of the arguments the District made during trial was the Plaintiff’s performance and her relationship with the Board began deteriorating long before her pregnancy.  Proving that, however, could have been a much more difficult battle without having sufficient documentary evidence to back it up.  Even if you never anticipate having an issue with an employee, the time to start preparing your case is now – not after you have a problem.  Document, document, document.

Brody and Associates regularly provides counsel on civil rights issues and employment laws in general. If we can be of assistance in this area, please contact us at info@brodyandassociates.com or 203.454.0560.