Plaintiff in Pregnancy Discrimination Case Allowed to Proceed Despite Prior Settlement Agreement
International law firm Morrison & Foerster is facing a class action lawsuit brought by female associates in California who allege that the firm harms the careers of pregnant women and new mothers by giving them fewer promotion opportunities and lower pay. Last week, the presiding Magistrate Judge ruled that one associate who had joined the case as a plaintiff was allowed to proceed despite having signed a waiver of legal claims against the firm in exchange for a severance agreement. The judge found that the plaintiff, who at the time of her termination was seven months pregnant and the sole earner in her family, could sufficiently allege that she faced economic duress when signing the release about a month before her planned maternity leave.
Our firm often counsels women who are terminated while pregnant. Facing termination is always challenging, and even more so when the person is visibly pregnant and may be unable to find work for a period of time after the termination due to her pregnancy. Although there are legal protections for pregnant women interviewing for jobs, practically speaking, if a person is not hired while visibly pregnant, they have little recourse. Women in this situation are often incentivized to settle their claims with the employer since they cannot take the chance of an uncertain outcome over the long period of time it takes to litigate the claim. For example, the case against Morrison & Foerster was filed a year ago.
It will be interesting to see how this case proceeds, and whether there will be an uptick in women who have settled against their employers bringing claims and arguing economic duress. Although the standard for pleading economic duress is more challenging to meet under New York State law than California law, as more pregnancy discrimination cases make the news, it is important to understand trends across the nation. Since New York elected officials have been focused on protecting pregnant women and new mothers, any trends in one state may inspire further protections here.