The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Louisiana recently reversed a trial court’s decision to dismiss a pregnancy discrimination case before trial. The case involved the law firm Carabin & Shaw’s decision to terminate an employee named Cynthia Heinsohn days after she went out on maternity leave. The trial court thought no reasonable jury could find that Carabin & Shaw had terminated Heinsohn because of her pregnancy. The Fifth Circuit found that the trial court had improperly denied Heinsohn her right to a trial.
The trial court, according to the Fifth Circuit, improperly threw out Heinsohn’s case before trial based on an assessment of witness credibility. The primary purpose of trials is to assess witness credibility. A judge cannot deny a worker her day in court just because he believes, based on the written record, that the employer’s supposed reason for terminating the worker was non-discriminatory. When a case comes down to witness credibility, particularly in a case where a jury trial is available, the winner should be decided based on a full assessment of each witness’ credibility by observing him or her testify.
The facts of Ms. Heinsohn’s case are, unfortunately, all too familiar. Ms. Heinsohn went out on maternity leave and Carabin & Shaw found that some deadlines had been missed which it blamed on Ms. Heinsohn. Without even asking Ms. Heinsohn about the missed deadlines, it fired her while she was on maternity leave. According to the Fifth Circuit, there was evidence that Ms. Heinsohn was not responsible for the missed deadlines and a jury could infer that Carabin & Shaw actually terminated her because of her pregnancy. This type of situation—where an employer fires an employee while she is out on leave—is all too familiar. When employees go on leave, they often draw the ire of their employers who have to take steps to get the employees’ work done while they are out.