A recent decision from the Eighth Circuit provides good training material about what "not to do" if you want to your company to avoid being liable for discrimination, and possibly punitive damages.
The EEOC filed suit against Siouxland Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery Associates, a medical clinic in Sioux Falls South Dakota. The complaint alleged that Siouxland terminated one employee and refused to hire another because of their pregnancy.
The first employee, Richelle Dooley, had worked for the clinic for two days when she was terminated. She told the office manager she was pregnant at the time she was filling out health benefit forms. The next day during a meeting with the business manager, the managing partner was informed about Dooley’s pregnancy. He reportedly responded as follows:
"the young lady we just hired is going to have a baby this summer, she isn’t going to be available to work. It doesn’t make any sense to begin training her…when she won’t be able to work the summer…. [W] are going to have to let her go."
The business manager and another physician in the clinic apparently told the managing partner they could not terminate Dooley because of her pregnancy. Nonetheless, she was fired.
When Dooley asked the business manager why she had been fired after only her second day on the job, she says she was told:
"your baby is going to be due during the busy season"; the clinic "never would have hired [you] if they had known [you were] pregnant."
A few months later, the office was seeking an employee to work in central sterilization and post-operative recovery. Angie Gacke applied for the job. The following is reported to have occurred in the job interview:
Applicant: "I don’t know if this is a problem or not, but I do want to let you know that I am four months pregnant."
Interviewer: "yes, it’s a problem. You are just going to end up causing more work for everybody else than you will be helping them."
Applicant: "my due date is in August"
Interviewer: "that’s the middle of our busy season, and we don’t grant any vacation or anything to anybody during the busy season."
The clinic’s defense to Gacke’s failure to hire claim was that she was overqualified. The interviewer had written the following on a copy of her resume:
"overqualified for job", she "needed insurance", and she was "4 months pregnant!"
Based upon this evidence, the jury found Siouxland had discriminated against the plaintiffs because of their pregnancy. However, the trial court refused to instruct the jury about punitive damages. On appeal, the Eighth Circuit found there was evidence managerial employees engaged in discrimination while knowing that such discrimination was prohibited by federal law. The Appellate Court held it was error to grant Siouxland judgment as a matter of law on the punitive damages claims, and remanded for a new trial solely on the issue of punitive damages.