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Friday, January 4, 2013

EEO Roundup: Lucasfilm Not at Fault in Showing Concern for Pregnant Worker and Her Unborn Child

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It's been a good past few months for George Lucas. Early last month, Disney completed its acquisition of his company Lucasfilm and the Star Wars franchise for $4.06 billion in cash and stock. And just yesterday it was announced that he will marry his girlfriend of seven years, Mellody Hobson.

Lucas and Lucasfilm also achieved success on the employment discrimination front, as they succeeded in their bid to overturn a $1.27 million pregnancy discrimination judgment against the company.

The case, Veronese v. Lucasfilm Ltd., involved several interesting questions, including the relevance of an employer's expressed concern for a pregnant woman and her unborn child in determining whether an employment decision involving the woman was tainted by illegal pregnancy bias. The lawsuit was brought by a woman whose arrangement to serve as the assistant to the estate manager of the property at which Lucas resides was delayed and then called off because of her pregnancy-related illness, her loss of one of the two twins she was carrying, and concerns raised by health and safety conditions at the estate.

The California Court of Appeal found it was an error for a state trial court to instruct the jury that, "A potential hazard to a fetus or an unborn child is not a defense to pregnancy discrimination." The trial court's sole authority for doing so, it said, was the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in United Auto Workers v. Johnson Controls Inc.

But Johnson Controls involved a broad employer policy that extended to any woman who was pregnant or capable of bearing children, while Lucasfilm had no such policy, the court said. Rather, the company made a decision involving the welfare of one pregnant woman who already had miscarried one twin, and the company otherwise provides extensive benefits to pregnant workers, including paid maternity leave, subsidized daycare, and 100 percent medical insurance coverage for the entire family.

Accordingly, the appeals court concluded, even if the trial court's jury instruction were "abstractly correct"--since, literally, there is no defense for discrimination when proved--the instruction still was improper. The instruction, the appeals court wrote, "could be interpreted as telling the jury that any potential hazard to an unborn child is necessarily irrelevant to the employer's legitimate decisionmaking." That would be erroneous, the court ruled, because Johnson Controls acknowledged "that Title VII does not prevent the employer from having a conscience."


Other recent EEO developments include:

  • The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit holding that a female employee of a Florida bail bond surety company had no retaliation claim under the Fair Labor Standards Act based on her discharge after asking about locations to express breast milk at work.
  • A state supreme court ruling that an Iowa dentist who fired an assistant his wife viewed as a threat to their marriage did not violate the state's anti-discrimination law.
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