Good Intentions Can Still be Discriminatory
The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently affirmed a jury verdict award in favor of an employee after she brought a pregnancy discrimination claim against her employer. The court also restored her back pay award in the amount of $80,000, which was erroneously vacated by the district court.
In the case Holland v. Gee, Holland was an employee of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. Prior to announcing her pregnancy, Holland worked for the Sheriff’s Office for 3 years as a computer technician. Within months of her announcement, she was transferred to the Help Desk, a position that was described as “less technical and more administrative.” The position was also categorized with a lower pay grade and viewed by some as a demotion.
Holland protested the decision and eventually was moved back to her former position and later terminated. Thereafter, Holland filed suit against her former employer for violations of Title VII and the Florida Civil Rights Act. The case proceeded to trial by jury and the jury returned a verdict in favor of Holland awarding her $80,000 in back pay and $10,000 for emotional distress.
On the sheriff’s motion, the district court upheld the jury’s verdict on liability but vacated the back pay award on the ground that Holland would have been fired anyway based on evidence acquired after the fact. Appeals ensued, and the Appellate Court upheld the jury’s finding and restored the back pay award.
Of particular interest, in deciding to transfer Holland, her supervisor testified that she made the decision to transfer her because she was a mother who had a difficult pregnancy and she was concerned for Holland and her pregnancy after Holland had suffered a prior miscarriage. The court noted that even though the reasoning was motivated out of concern and her intentions were benign, the reason was still motivated by Holland’s pregnancy and it was therefore discriminatory.
The take-away: if a decision is based upon an individual’s protected status regardless of the intention (good or bad), it may be considered discriminatory and can subject an employer to liability - employers beware.