You just found out you’re pregnant, and you’re telling everyone you know the great news: your friends, your family, and even your boss. However, right after you inform your boss about your pregnancy, your boss fires you.
You’re pretty sure that’s illegal, but even if you’re right, will you be able to recover for the financial difficulties that you will inevitably face until you find a new job?
How about compensation for any stress, humiliation, and mental suffering following the loss of your job? The short answer to both questions is yes, as evidenced by a recent court decision involving the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that awarded a pregnant former employee more than $74,000 in damages.
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. United Bible Fellowship Ministries, Inc.
Sharmira Johnson was an employee of United Bible Fellowship Ministries, Inc. (UBFM), a nonprofit organization with the mission of providing housing and skills training for individuals with physical or mental disabilities. Johnson began working for UBFM on October 29, 2010 as a resource technician.
On April 12, 2011, Johnson gave her boss a doctor’s note informing him of her pregnancy. The doctor’s note stated that Johnson had no medical limitations placed on her ability to work and that her pregnancy should not prevent her from working. That same day, Johnson’s boss handed her a typed and signed memo titled “Relief of Duty Due to Pregnancy” that effectively fired Johnson immediately. Pertinent portions of the memo stated:
In accordance to the Policy of Pregnancy In the Workplace…you will be relieved of duty pending your pregnancy and that upon your delivery you will be eligible for rehire for any direct care position we have available at that time.
Two days after being fired, Johnson miscarried. Following her firing and the loss of her child, Johnson suffered substantial stress, anguish, grief, humiliation, and economic hardship.
Johnson eventually found an equivalent job with a different employer, but not until September 10, 2012. Johnson did not apply for her old job at UBFM because she intended to become pregnant again and because the “Relief of Duty Due to Pregnancy” memo only promised Johnson would be eligible for another job at UBFM if one were available.
Johnson filed a complaint with the EEOC, claiming UBFM violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) when it fired her for being pregnant. The EEOC then filed a lawsuit in federal district court on Johnson’s behalf against UBFM.
The Outcome of the Case
Since the court considered UBFM a corporation, legal rules required UBFM to have an attorney represent it in the lawsuit. UBFM’s attorneys withdrew representation because UBFM refused to pay them for their legal services. After their withdrawal, the court gave UBFM 10 days to find new attorneys. When UBFM did not obtain new representation in the required amount of time, the court ruled in favor of the EEOC by default.
A default occurs when a party in a lawsuit fails to do something required of it. In this case, UBFM was required to find new attorneys but did not do so. As a result, the court ruled against the nonprofit by default. After the default, Johnson was awarded the following:
- $24,564.47 for lost wages for the period of unemployment from April 12, 2011 to September 10, 2012, and
- $50,000.00 in punitive damages because UBFM acted recklessly in failing to comply with Title VII and acted with malice or reckless indifference to Johnson’s right to not be discriminated purely based on her being pregnant.
The court also made UBFM pay $1,662.38 in litigation and court costs incurred by the EEOC in litigating the lawsuit.
For more information about damages available to victims of discrimination in violation of federal law, take a look at our article Discrimination in the Federal Workplace or Nolo’s article discussing the Civil Rights Act of 1991, “Damages Available under Federal Discrimination Laws.”
Summing It Up
- If an employer violates Title VII and illegally fires an employee for being pregnant, the court may require it to pay damages in the form of lost wages, punitive damages, and the employee’s litigation costs pursuant to Title VII and the Civil Rights Act of 1991.
- Think you may have been illegally fired for being pregnant or for some other violation of Title VII? If so, please contact our office to discuss your case and legal options.