Houston Home and Community Services Organization Unlawfully Fired Pregnant Employee Pursuant to Illegal No-Pregnancy Policy, Federal Agency Charged
HOUSTON - A federal judge has awarded a pregnancy discrimination victim almost $75,000 in back pay and damages following a decision finding United Bible Fellowship Ministries, Inc. liable for pregnancy discrimination. The award resulted from a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against the Houston-based non-profit organization which provides housing and residential care to clients with disabilities.
The EEOC's lawsuit charged that United Bible violated federal law by enforcing an unlawful "no pregnancy in the workplace" policy which prohibited the continued employment of any employee who became pregnant. The policy further refused employment to any pregnant applicant who sought a resource technician position. United Bible implemented that policy by firing Sharmira Johnson, a resource technician who provided care to residents.
The organization admitted that Johnson had performed her job well and had no medical restrictions or any other impediment in her ability to carry out her job functions, and that it had terminated her solely because she had become pregnant. United Bible argued the termination was legally justifiable to ensure Johnson's safety, as well as the safety of her unborn child and that of United Bible's residents.
Such alleged conduct violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The EEOC filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas (Civil Action No. 4:13-cv-2871) after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process.
Following a trial before the court, Judge Vanessa D. Gilmore entered Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law on May 19, in which the court awarded Johnson $24,764 in back pay and overtime with interest, plus out-of-pocket costs. The court also found that Johnson had suffered emotional pain and suffering and mental anguish as a result of United Bible's actions, and that the employer had acted with malice or reckless indifference to Johnson's federally protected rights. Based on those findings, the court awarded her $50,000 in punitive damages. According to the decision, United Bible recklessly failed to comply with Title VII despite holding a funding contract with the Texas Department on Aging and Disability Services, which specifically, over and above the compliance required by the statute itself, required United Bible to comply with anti-discrimination laws, including Title VII.
On March 24, after United Bible failed to retain substitute counsel to continue defending its case, as previously ordered by the court, the judge entered a default judgment against United Bible. The following day, March 25, the court also granted the EEOC's motion for summary judgment, denying the legitimacy of United Bible's purported reasons for the pregnancy policy, and finding the employer liable under Title VII for pregnancy discrimination. The court held, among other things, that United Bible failed to show that all or substantially all pregnant women would be unable to safely and efficiently perform the duties of a resource technician.
"This court ruling once again makes clear that the federal government will not tolerate workplace policies which explicitly set barriers to employment to anyone based on a protected factor such as sex or pregnancy," said EEOC Regional Attorney Jim Sacher. "All employers, even non-profits, are required by federal law to ensure equal access to job opportunities for all, regardless of sex, race, religion, national origin, age or disability."
Claudia Molina-Antanaitis, EEOC senior trial attorney and the agency's attorney in charge of the case, added, "This decision is another in a long line of federal court cases rejecting employer policies based on assumptions and stereotypes about a pregnant woman's inability to work. Employers cannot impose paternalistic and unsubstantiated views on the alleged dangers of pregnancy to exclude all pregnant women from employment."
The EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. Additional information about the EEOC is available on the agency's website at http://www.eeoc.gov.