When April Fools Is No Joke
What a medical staffing company owner first assumed was an April Fools joke ended up with serious consequences for him: a discrimination lawsuit and a $148,000 payout to an employee.
On April 1, 2008, HCS Medical Staffing Inc hired Roxy Leger as a bookkeeper, with duties to include reconfiguring the Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based company's records and bills because the previous bookkeeper had been fired for embezzlement.
On the day she started work Leger learned she was pregnant and informed company owner Charles Sisson, who thought it was an April Fools joke. He referred to it as a joke at a staff meeting, and persisted in the belief even, according to court documents, after being told by other staff members that it was not. The next month, Leger brought an ultrasound in to show colleagues; Sisson allegedly refused to look at it.
He persisted with the idea that her pregnancy was a joke even after she came to him to discuss a replacement while she was on maternity leave. He described the maternity leave as "a vacation" and said it could be no longer than two days, so temporary help wouldn't be needed. Leger informed him that law entitled her to six to eight weeks, and that she would be taking eight weeks.
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which filed a pregnancy discrimination complaint last year on Leger's behalf, Sisson then complained of insurance costs covering the pregnancy. He questioned her time off for doctor's appointments, and–to the office manager–allegedly referred to Leger's unborn child as "a thing." According to the EEOC, the office manager later "congratulated" Leger on being the first woman not fired by the owner during a pregnancy.
Sisson at some point acknowledged the pregnancy, giving Leger information about an "apparatus" that would reduce her stress and allow her to return to work faster.
On Oct. 21, Leger's doctor put her on bed rest. Sisson approved her leave and Leger pitched in with her work by phone. She even called in to help with payroll questions Oct. 30 to 31, just two days after she gave birth to a son by Caesarean section.
What she didn't know at the time was that she'd already been fired Oct. 30, one day before her medical insurance was to take effect. She didn't learn she'd been fired until Nov. 3, when her husband went to the post office to pick up some certified mail. (He thought it was a gift card, but instead it was a termination letter, citing poor job performance and "gross negligence." Leger had received no negative comments about her work performance before the letter arrived, the EEOC said.)
Attempts at mediation failed, according to the EEOC, and the company failed to respond to court orders to retain a lawyer.
U.S. District Court Judge J. P. Stadtmueller found that the “circumstances leading up to HCS's discriminatory termination of Leger were inherently humiliating and caused Leger substantial emotional distress. The circumstances surrounding Leger's notification of termination were equally degrading.” He said her firing had been done "with malice and reckless indifference to [her] federally protected rights."
HCS staffing was ordered to pay $100,000 in damages plus $48,340.40 in back pay.
Said John Hendrickson, the EEOC's regional attorney for the Chicago District, which includes Wisconsin: Some employers appear to have gotten the news later than others: taking adverse actions against employees on account of pregnancy has been a violation of federal law for years. It won't wash–you just can't do it."
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