When Jennifer Martin emailed her boss at Tall Brown Dog, LLC, in 2015 to tell him that she was pregnant and needed to take a sick day, his response was less than congratulatory.
“OK,” he said without further comment, and then shifted directly into a discussion about his plan for her to increase her sales call activity.
Soon thereafter, she told the CEO of the company about her pregnancy, and he also responded as if channeling Spock. He noted that “people have been pregnant here before,” and then “got very stoic, you know, and walked away,” according to Martin.
Such cold responses might be seen by some as simply the hyper-business-minded focus of small company managers or the social ineptitude of workaholics, but a federal judge in Michigan found that such non-supportive reactions could be interpreted by a jury as evidence of pregnancy discrimination against Martin, who was fired from her job days later.
Her bosses’ “reaction to Martin’s telling him that she was pregnant again (not congratulating her or acknowledging it in his response, and then moving on to discuss performance issues) could be viewed as suspect,” Judge Sean Cox wrote in his opinion in Martin v. Tall Brown Dog, LLC, denying summary judgment.
The case illustrates two basic truths:
- Supervisors should never forget to be human beings in dealing with their subordinates – employees should be supported when they announce big news like pregnancies, or suffer health problems personally or in their families. Some supervisors feel paralyzed with fear about legal liability when issues like this arise. Training from human resources or legal can help managers learn that complying with the law does not mean acting like unfeeling robots.
- Pregnant employees are sympathetic plaintiffs. Woe to the company that has to explain to a jury why it was so harsh and unsupportive to an expectant mother. It will be interesting to see whether this case settles or is tried to a verdict.
Michael Homans is a Labor & Employment attorney and founding partner of HomansPeck LLC. For more employment law updates, including news and links to important information pertaining to legal developments that may affect your business, subscribe to Michael’s blog, or follow him on Twitter @EmployLawUpdate.