By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth SynopsisIn an EEOC-initiated pregnancy discrimination lawsuit, a federal district court in Florida granted in part and denied in part the employer’s motion for summary judgment, finding there were several genuine issues of material fact surrounding an employee’s return to work from pregnancy leave, but holding that her constructive discharge claim lacked merit.  EEOC v. NICE Systems, Inc., No. 20-CV-81021, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146834 (S.D. Fla. Aug. 5, 2021).

The ruling is instructive for employers in terms of both reintegrating pregnant employees into the workforce, and potential litigation strategies for subsequent EEOC pregnancy discrimination litigation.

Case Background

The Intervenor Plaintiff worked for Defendant from August 2015 to March 2018 as a Sales Executive.  In April 2017, she informed her direct supervisor that she was pregnant.  Thereafter, the Intervenor Plaintiff complained of the discriminatory treatment to her employer’s Director of Human Resources, Vice President of Solution Sales, and Regional Vice President.  She also requested transfer to a different department, but the company was not able to accommodate that request.  On March 2, 2018, the Intervenor Plaintiff resigned.  Id. at *4.

The EEOC brought a lawsuit on behalf of the Intervenor Plaintiff alleging claims of pregnancy discrimination, retaliation, and constructive discharge in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978.  It alleged that the Intervenor Plaintiff’s employer discriminated against her on the basis of her pregnancy by undertaking four actions, including: (1) transferring her existing sales accounts to a newly hired employee on a different team; (2) refusing to assign a new sales lead in her territory; (3) invoking the “windfall” provision of her employment contract to cap the amount of commission she could receive on an audit/settlement that she contributed to before she went on maternity leave; and (4) upon her return from maternity leave, reassigning her Canada territory to a male colleague, and assigning to her a different territory.  Id. at *2-3.  Following discovery, Defendant moved for summary judgment as to all three claims.

The Court’s Decision

The Court granted Defendant’s motion for summary judgment as to the constructive discharge claim, but denied summary judgment as to the pregnancy discrimination and retaliation claims. First, the Court explained that to establish a Title VII disparate treatment discrimination claim, the EEOC must prove that the discrimination the claimant suffered constituted an adverse employment action, and that Defendant acted with discriminatory intent.  Id. at *7 (citations omitted).  Further, proof of discriminatory intent may be shown by either direct or circumstantial evidence.  Id. at *8.

Applied here, the Court noted that despite requesting a sales lead for approximately a month and a half prior to her maternity leave, the Intervenor Plaintiff’s supervisor did not assign one to her territory until almost two months after she returned from leave.  As such, the Court held that a reasonable jury could find that the loss of this income-producing opportunity constituted an adverse employment action.  Further, the Court found there was direct evidence of intentional discrimination when the supervisor announced on a conference call that he would not be assigning the Intervenor Plaintiff’s new sales leads because of her “condition,” in reference to her pregnancy.  Id. at *11.  Accordingly, the Court held that Defendant was not entitled to summary judgment on the EEOC’s discrimination claim.

Turning to the second claim asserting retaliation, the Court opined that the EEOC must prove that: (1) the claimant participated in an activity protected by Title VII; (2) she suffered from an action that might well have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination; and (3) there is a causal connection between the participation in the protected activity and the action. Id. at *12 (citations omitted).  Here, the EEOC alleged, in part, that Defendant retaliated against the Intervenor Plaintiff by paying her less commission on a deal than she should have received as a result of her maternity leave.  Defendant argued that the Intervenor Plaintiff did not originate the deal and participated minimally, and therefore she was not entitled to the sales commission.  The Court concluded that summary judgment on the retaliation claim would be improper, since there was a question of fact as to whether she was entitled to the commission bonus.

Finally, the Court granted Defendant’s motion for summary judgment regarding the constructive discharge claim.  The Court explained that to establish a claim for constructive discharge, the EEOC must demonstrate that the employer deliberately imposed conditions that were, “so intolerable that a reasonable person in [the employee’s position] would have been compelled to resign.” Id. at *18 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).  Defendant argued that, based on the evidentiary record, no reasonable jury could find that the Intervenor Plaintiff’s work environment deteriorated to the point of becoming “intolerable.”  Id. at *19.  Viewing the totality of the evidence in Plaintiffs’ favor, the Court opined that the EEOC’s best theory for establishing the constructive discharge claim was that from the time that the Intervenor Plaintiff disclosed to her supervisor that she was pregnant, he took steps to siphon off income-producing opportunities from her sales pipeline, until her commission prospects were so diminished that she would have no choice but to resign.  However, the Court held that even this scenario was not enough to meet the, “intolerable  work environment,” standard.  Id. at *20-21. Therefore, the Court granted Defendant’s motion for summary judgment on the constructive discharge claim.

Implications For Employers

From a factual perspective, this ruling illustrates potential pitfalls for employers who elect to modify the working conditions of pregnant employees upon their return to work, as well as issues relative to non-streamlined compensation structures such as commissions and bonuses.

From a legal perspective, this ruling demonstrates that pregnancy discrimination lawsuits often contain complex factual considerations, resulting in courts’ hesitancy to grant summary judgment where, as here, a jury could find both parties’ positions to be meritorious.

Accordingly, prudent employers should establish thorough pregnancy leave policies that account for pre-leave and post-leave circumstances that may impact working conditions in their sectors.

Readers can also find this post on our Workplace Class Action blog here.