Another company walloped for pregnancy discrimination:

A jury awarded $1.8 million to a Bethel Park woman in federal court yesterday after it found that her employer fired her improperly during maternity leave.

Ms. Smith gave birth to her son, Tommy, on Nov. 8, 2005, by Caesarean section. He was born with collapsed lungs and pneumonia and was hospitalized in a neonatal intensive care unit for two weeks. He left the hospital on Nov. 21.

Ms. Smith had planned to take six weeks off — the amount of time recommended by her physician and allowed by company policy — but in the third week, Normandy fired her.

"It was a horrible feeling," she said. "It was the biggest slap in the face I ever received."

The jury of seven women and one man deliberated about 2 1/2 hours and awarded $600,000 for compensatory damages and $1.2 million in punitive damages.

Wake up, employers: pregnancy discrimination is illegal, actionable, and likely to result in punitive damages.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, extending the same protections for sex-based employment discrimination to discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. Employers can get walloped for:

  • back pay and front pay;
  • compensatory damages ranging from $50,000 to $300,000 depending on company size;
  • attorney’s fees and costs; and,
  • punitive damages ranging from $50,000 to $300,000 depending on company size.

Pay attention to those numbers. Let’s go as low as possible: a $20,000 annual employee at a company of 15 people, with a fast-moving case tried by a low-billing attorney.

They’re fired, spend a year in the EEOC / state regulatory complaint, files suit, spends six months in suit, then goes to a jury, which gives her the maximum, then the judge gives her six months front pay. That’s:

  • $30,000 back pay
  • $10,000 front pay
  • $50,000 compensatory damages
  • $20,000 attorney’s fees and costs.
  • $50,000 punitive damages

$160,000. If the employee made $40,000, then we’re talking $200,000.

Did I mention prejudgment interest? It’s also available.

If you (or your adjuster) think you can shave off those numbers, take a look at the Third Circuit’s recommended jury instruction for those damages, too, which generously tells the jury to consider the plaintiff’s difficulty in finding a new job down the road as a compensatory damage separate and apart from front pay. Maybe you’ll avoid punitives, though the company in the Smith case quoted above didn’t.

I know times are tough, and it’s tempting to start the downsizing first with the woman you just know is going to use up tons of maternity leave and Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) time.

Don’t. A million times — or rather, one million, eight hundred thousand times — don’t.