Mass.: Court Upholds Jury Award in Pregnancy Bias Case

By Diane Cadrain Jan 15, 2015
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A Massachusetts appellate court upheld a jury verdict in favor of a law firm receptionist who claimed that she was fired from her job because she was pregnant.

Jennifer Carrion started working as a receptionist for D’Angelo and Hashem, a personal injury law firm, in July 2005. She soon took on additional clerical duties and received a promotion. In October 2005, she told Saba Hashem, a founding partner in the firm, that she was pregnant. Until then, Hashem had praised her work, told her he was grooming her to be his “right-hand man,” and saw to it that she received a raise. However, after learning of her pregnancy, he became anxious and angry. At one point, he told her she was fired…and then immediately reversed himself, explaining that he was “stressed out” because, despite her assurances to the contrary, he didn’t know whether she would return to work after maternity leave.

Subsequently, Hashem confronted Carrion with allegations from a woman who worked in the same office building, who claimed that she found firm mail in the ladies' restroom and, on the same day, saw Carrion asleep at her desk.

Hashem then ordered Carrion to take a leave of absence, explicitly stating that he was putting her on leave because she was pregnant. Two days later, he fired her, but did not bring up any issues related to job performance, including the report of the woman who worked in the same building. Later, Hashem and the firm said that they terminated Carrion’s employment because of her inadequate job performance and her “lying” about sleeping at work, but Carrion testified at the trial that Hashem never mentioned these allegations or any other issue about her work when he fired her.

Carrion sued for sex discrimination and retaliation; the retaliation claim was based on the firm’s denial of her application for unemployment benefits. The case was tried before a jury in November 2011. The jury decided that Hashem, and the firm, discriminated against Carrion because of her pregnancy and awarded her $72,000 for lost back pay and benefits and $28,000 for emotional distress.

Hashem and the firm appealed.

On the sex discrimination claim, the appellate court reviewed the evidence that had been before the jury, and viewing it in the light most favorable to Carrion, it decided that the evidence presented a viable case of gender discrimination based on the Carrion’s pregnancy. The jury had the job of weighing “the credibility of conflicting explanations' of the adverse [employment] decision," the court said, upholding the verdict.

On the retaliation claim, the court stated that Carrion had been unable to prove all of the essential elements of a claim for retaliation. The retaliation claim was based in part on the firm’s denial of her application for jobless benefits. Carrion maintained that she complained to Hashem, when he placed her on leave of absence, that he was being “unfair" in treating her this way because she was pregnant, and that that complaint amounted to a protected action on which a claim of retaliation could be based. But the court stated that it was questionable whether her statement qualified as the type of protected activity covered by the law. Even if it did, the court said, Carrion could not show a causal connection between her complaint and the firm's actions in contesting her application for jobless benefits. She had presented no evidence from which it could be concluded that her statement was the cause of the firm's decision to contest her application. The court reversed the judgment on the retaliation claim.

Carrion v. Hashem, Mass. Ct. App., No. 13-P-993 (Dec. 9, 2014).

Diane Cadrain is an attorney who has been writing about employment law issues for more than 20 years.
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