Tip: Don't Blame A Pregnant Woman's "Hormones" For Job Performance Before Firing Her

| William A. Schreiner, Jr.

"Bun in Oven"

Let’s start this story with a basic truth: it’s generally a bad idea to tell a pregnant woman that her hormones will make her “get emotional” and get “caught up in things” in a way that affects her judgment. 

You need not take this from me as a lawyer-blogger.  Take it from me as a guy whose wife is pregnant with our first child.  Blaming anything in our house on pregnancy hormones is a one-way ticket to the basement couch. 

It’s also a bad idea to say this to a pregnant employee, as department-store chain Target Stores is learning.  We’ve written about the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 before, and in some high-profile contexts.  But the case of Spigarelli v. Target, which will move forward in federal court in Pennsylvania now that Target has lost its summary judgment motion, shows that this lesson continues to bear discussion. 

The Spigarelli case illustrates what not to say to a pregnant employee before you fire her.  It also shows the burdens an employee needs to meet in order to move forward with a pregnancy discrimination (or, generally, an employment discrimination) case, as well as the burdens an employer needs to meet to end such a case in its early stages. 

The key facts in the case are these.  According to a court opinion, Christina Spigarelli worked as an “executive team leader of asset protection” at Target, before being promoted to “executive team leader for guest experience.”  While in the guest experience job, she was given a warning for alleged “negligent conduct” while trying to apprehend a shoplifter, and put on probation for a year.  During that year, she returned to her post in asset protection. 

A few months later, she told her colleagues she was pregnant.  The same month, she was written up for three violations of the store’s policies on stopping shoplifter suspects.  The next month, she alleges, her supervisor told Spigarelli her “decision-making was being affected” by pregnancy hormones, she was “being too emotional and getting caught up in things,” and she “wasn’t thinking right,” something her supervisor said – in the supervisor’s experience with pregnant family members – was due to her pregnancy. 

At the end of that month, Spigarelli was fired. 

Spigarelli sued Target for violating the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978

Target moved for summary judgment on Spigarelli’s lawsuit.  To make a long story short, a party in a lawsuit is entitled to summary judgment if: 1) there is no real dispute about the material facts in the case; and 2) based on those undisputed facts, the moving party is still entitled to win.  We’ve written about that here and here, and for non-lawyers that would like to read more, the classic United States Supreme Court case explaining this is Celotex v. Catrett

Target’s argument was that Spigarelli hadn’t met her burden of showing that she was fired because she was pregnant – in other words, according to Target, Spigarelli had been fired, but for other reasons than her pregnancy. To keep her suit moving forward (and defeat Target’s motion), Spigarelli needed to show Target knew she was pregnant, she was otherwise qualified for the job, and she was fired because she was pregnant (specifically, that a “causal nexus’ existed between her firing and her pregnancy).  Once she met that burden, Target would have to show it fired her for a “legitimate, non-discriminatory” reason – for something not having to do with her pregnancy.  Spigarelli can then contest that reason by showing it’s just a pretext for Target’s discrimination.  My colleague Jason Knott has written more on these burdens here and here.    

The order in which all of this is shown is important on a motion for summary judgment, as Target learned.  Target focused (targeted?) on Spigarelli’s prior violations of its asset-protection policies, by laying out her history of being warned about policy violations and being on probation. It also argued she hadn’t showed a connection between her pregnancy and her firing.  So, in essence, Target said Spigarelli hadn’t met her first burden, because she wasn’t qualified to hold the job, and it had a non-pregnancy-related reason for firing her. 

In denying Target’s motion, the court rejected Target’s arguments.  On the first argument, it said Target was getting its burdens confused when it said Spigarelli wasn’t qualified for her position because it had warned her about violating company policies.  Spigarelli disputed that those warnings were the reason for her firing – the real reason she was canned, she alleged, was that she was pregnant.  So for Target to argue that Spigarelli hadn’t met her own burden of showing she was qualified based on something that the company alleged but that she had denied goes against the basis for summary judgment: remember, for Target to win, the material facts (and why Spigarelli was fired is clearly one) couldn’t be a subject of dispute between the parties. 

Target’s second argument – that Spigarelli hadn’t shown she was fired for being pregnant – also failed to persuade the court, based on Spigarelli’s allegations.  Spigarelli said she hadn’t been accused of breaching Target’s policies for ten months, and then all of a sudden – right after she announced her pregnancy – she was hit with three violations.  As the court put it, this coincidence cast much doubt on Target’s argument: “Such temporal proximity between Defendant’s knowledge of Plaintiff’s pregnancy and subsequent adverse employment actions would be sufficient to draw an adverse inference of causality as to defeat summary judgment.”  Put in a less elegant way: “ORLY?”   

The lesson from this case, for companies and those that manage, own and love them, is rather clear: to avoid litigation with pregnant employees at any level of the enterprise, it’s best not to blame any performance issues on their pregnancy, “hormones,” or anything related to them.  If I do that, my wife sends me to the basement couch.  If you do that, you can wind up with expensive and time-consuming court fights.