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A federal court decided that a Massachusetts employee whose position was downsized at about the same time she was filling out the paperwork for her maternity leave might have suffered pregnancy discrimination.
Victoria Domenichetti worked as an externship coordinator for Premier Education Group, which ran the Salter School, a career-training school with a campus in Fall River. Her job involved placing students in externship opportunities. She had been working for about a year when she became pregnant and was due to give birth in August 2012. In May, she began filling out the FMLA paperwork for her upcoming leave.
Meanwhile, the school was faced with declining enrollment. In May, 2012, William Anjos, Premier’s senior vice president of operations and chief financial officer, told Paul Ferrise, a regional vice president, to develop a plan to reduce staff expenses for the campuses in his region. On May 16, 2012, at a time when Anjos and Ferrise said they had no knowledge of Domenichetti's pregnancy, Ferrise recommended various reductions in force, including eliminating her position or reducing it to half-time.
At the end of June 2012, when her status became part-time, Domenichetti lost her health benefits. In early August 2012, Domenichetti began her maternity leave. On Nov. 5, 2012, she returned from maternity leave and resigned from her position.
She sued the company for pregnancy discrimination.
To prevail on her claim, the court said, Domenichetti had to show that that: (1) she was pregnant at the relevant time, (2) her job performance was satisfactory, but (3) her employer took some adverse employment action against her while (4) treating non-pregnant employees differently.
The court agreed that Domenichetti was able to show that she was pregnant when her hours were reduced to part-time, resulting in a loss of health benefits, which was an adverse employment action. Also, the court pointed out that her most recent performance evaluation had been positive. Finally, Domenichetti had been able to show that she was treated differently than non-pregnant employees, as there were non-pregnant employees whose positions were not selected for a reduction in hours during Premier's downsizing.
In response, the school was required to show a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its actions. This it did by showing the decline in student enrollment and the resulting need for downsizing.
In response, Domenichetti was required to show that the school’s reason was really a pretext for discrimination. On this point, the court looked at evidence of whether the officials who had made the decision to downsize her position—Anjos and Fall River Campus President David Palmer—knew she was pregnant at the time. Anjos, the court pointed out, was the head of a 1300-plus employee operation and did not work in the same office as Domenichetti, so he probably did not know of her pregnancy. But Palmer, the court said, knew Domenichetti was pregnant from the very first week he began working at the Fall River campus. Remarking on this evidence, the court said that “[a] plaintiff may succeed on a discrimination claim based on the animus not of the ultimate decision maker, but rather on the animus of a subordinate employee who influenced the decision maker.”
The court decided that the veracity of Premier’s reasons was questionable. “On this record, the question of intent must be resolved by a jury,” the court said, allowing the claim to remain in court.
Domenichetti v. Premier Education Group, D. Mass.,Civil Action No. 12-cv-11311-IT (Jan. 5, 2015).
Diane Cadrain is an attorney who has been writing about employment law issues for more than 20 years.
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