Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Pregnancy Discrimination Case Against Chicago Law Firm Allowed to Proceed to a Jury

A three-judge panel for the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has overturned a district court's grant of summary judgment in a case filed by a former marketing director for Chicago-based law firm SmithAmundsen, LLC.  The plaintiff, Lisa Makowski, was fired by SmithAmundsen while she was out on FMLA leave during her pregnancy and the law firm cited "firm organizational restructuring."  However, Makowski was then told by the firm’s human resources director informed her she was actually terminated because she was pregnant and took medical leave, and suggested speaking with a lawyer. The human resources director, who monitor’s the firm’s compliance with anti-discrimination laws and consulted outside counsel before Makowski’s firing, denied saying that.

The firm's HR director's comments caused Makowski to filed suit under Title VII and FMLA but the district court granted SmithAmunden's motion for summary judgment on the grounds the comments were inadmissible hearsay.  The 7th Circuit saw it quite differently and reversed that granted motion.  From the Wisconsin Bar's article on the decision:

The district court ruled that O’Gara’s alleged statements to Makowski were not admissions by a party opponent because her job responsibility did not relate to the termination decision. Without O’Gara’s statements, the district court ruled, summary judgment was warranted. 
But the appeals panel disagreed, explaining that O’Gara’s statements were admissions by a party opponent because she was involved in the process leading up to Makowski’s termination even though O’Gara did not make the decision to terminate. 
“O’Gara’s duties as Human Resources Director at the Firm included regular consultations regarding decisions to eliminate positions and terminate employees in order to ensure compliance with federal anti-discrimination laws, making her a part of the firing process,” wrote District Judge Richard Young, sitting by designation. 
The panel ruled that a jury must decide whether O’Gara made those statements, but assuming she did for purposes of summary judgment, granting summary judgment was not warranted. 
“O’Gara’s alleged statements to Makowski, which are now admitted under Rule 801(d)(2)(D), provide direct evidence that pregnancy was a motivating factor in Makowski’s discharge,” Judge Young wrote. “Although O’Gara denies having made the alleged statements, whether or not she made such admissions is a question for the jury."

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