Discrimination in employment because of pregnancy is prohibited by the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act (and also by the federal laws against employment discrimination). A basic element of any discrimination claim is that the employee asserting the claim be a member of a protected class. For pregnancy discrimination, the class would include employees terminated while pregnant or while taking maternity leave for their pregnancy. It would seem that an employee who is not pregnant is therefore not a member of the protected class. However, the interesting facts alleged in the case of Sieranski v. TJC, Esq., recently decided in the Milford Superior Court, led to the opposite conclusion.
For the purpose of deciding a preliminary motion to strike a complaint from the court docket, the judge accepts the allegations of the complaint as true (even if they seem far-fetched). According to the allegations in the Sieranski case, the Plaintiff took a job with a law firm shortly after having a child. Her supervising attorney regularly questioned her on her plans to have another child. At one point the Plaintiff responded that it was possible, and the attorney said that she had seen a psychic, and the psychic had told her that the Plaintiff was pregnant. A few days later, the Plaintiff told the attorney that she thought she was pregnant, and a few days after that the Plaintiff was fired because “she was not a good fit.”
Although the Plaintiff was not in fact pregnant, she sued the law firm on a claim of pregnancy discrimination. The law firm’s defense was that the Plaintiff was not a member of the protected class. But in an analogous situation, the Connecticut Supreme Court has ruled that an employee fired because of a perceived physical disability can sue for disability discrimination even if not actually disabled. The Supreme Court’s reasoning in Desrosiers v. Diageo North America, Inc., 314 Conn. 773 (2014) was that the purpose of anti-discrimination laws was to protect employees against actions based on a discriminatory motive, and the motive was discriminatory regardless of whether the employee was actually disabled or only perceived as disabled.
This reasoning persuaded the court in the Sieranski case, which found that perceived pregnancy was no different than perceived disability. Since the allegations could support an inference that the Plaintiff was fired because her supervisor believed she was pregnant, the court denied the motion to strike the complaint and allowed the case to proceed.
The obvious take-away for employers is to consult your employment counsel, rather than a psychic, when contemplating termination of an employee who is or even seems to be in a protected category, especially when the explanation is nothing more than not being a good fit.