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In pregnancy discrimination case, court rejects employer’s argument that it didn’t know plaintiff was pregnant

Last week, a federal court in Massachusetts held that a reasonable jury could find that the Salter School discriminated against former employee Victoria Domenichetti because she was pregnant and would need maternity leave. Ms. Domenichetti worked as the Externship Coordinator at the Salter School’s Fall River campus, which is a career training school. The Salter School reduced Ms. Domenichetti’s hours from full-time to part-time shortly after she submitted paperwork requesting maternity leave.

The Salter School argued that a member of upper management, William Anjos, made the decision to reduce Ms. Domenichetti’s hours and he had no idea that Ms. Domenichetti was pregnant and would need maternity leave. As such, according to the Salter School, a jury could not reasonably find that it discriminated against Ms. Domenichetti because of her pregnancy and need for maternity leave because Mr. Anjos had no idea she was pregnant when he decided to reduce her hours. The court rejected this argument. Even assuming that Mr. Anjos didn’t know that Ms. Domenichetti was pregnant, the court held that a jury could reasonably find that the Salter School discriminated against Ms. Domenichetti because Mr. Anjos based his decision on input from someone who did know that Ms. Domenichetti was pregnant and would need maternity leave. Mr. Anjos relied on the input of the Fall River campus President, David Palmer, when he made his decision to reduce Ms. Domenichetti’s hours; there was no dispute that Mr. Palmer knew that Ms. Domenichetti was pregnant and would need maternity leave when he offered his input.

The argument that the Salter School made in this case is not uncommon. In the face of discrimination charges, many employers choose to put forward a person who did not know the complainant well and then claim that he made the decision to take adverse action (such as, termination, demotion, or suspension) against the complainant. The employer will argue that this supposed decisionmaker did not know that the complainant was pregnant, or disabled, or in need of medical leave, or had some other protected trait, and, thus, he could not have discriminated against the complainant because of her protected trait. The problem with this strategy, however, is that managers who do not know an employee rarely take adverse actions against the employee without getting input from a manager who knows the employee and that the employee is pregnant, disabled, in need of medical leave, etc. These managers who provide this input are often the ones behind the discriminatory treatment.