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Smoking boss fires pregnant worker to avoid lawsuits; sued anyway

The director of a Palm Desert holistic wellness center has apparently been critically misinformed about his legal responsibilities under California and federal law, as well as what constitutes pregnancy discrimination, according to a recent lawsuit.

The plaintiff was five months pregnant when she was hired as the office manager for the Synergy wellness Center, although Synergy’s director didn’t realize it. When she mentioned it several weeks later, she says, he was up-front about it, saying "I didn't know you were pregnant. I would have never hired you had I known."

According to the complaint, the woman tried to explain that it’s illegal to refuse to hire someone because she’s pregnant, but her boss wasn’t having it. "What's illegal,” he said, “is the fact that you didn't tell me that you are pregnant."

He had that backwards. In reality, employers are generally prohibited to ask job applicants about current or future pregnancies. Applicants, on the other hand, have no legal obligation to mention it or not. And yes, refusing to hire a pregnant woman is the very essence of pregnancy discrimination.

Things didn’t improve from there. The boss was a heavy smoker, and he felt it was his responsibility to avoid harming the baby -- even if it cost his office manager her job. First, he asked her to sign a statement acknowledging that she hadn’t mentioned her pregnancy before she was hired, that she agreed to avoid the office smoking area, and that she was receiving an official warning.

It’s not clear whether she signed that statement, but the director began to be aggressive toward her, according to the lawsuit. He berated her in front of patients, seriously enough that more than one of those patients inquired about her welfare.

She did ask the director to smoke outside on one occasion. According to her complaint, he answered, “'I fucking own this office. I can smoke wherever I want.'"

Less than two months passed before the director fired her. "I have to let you go because you are pregnant, and I can't quit smoking,” he explained, she says. “I don't want to be sued if your baby comes out with birth defects."

Synergy’s director isn’t likely to be sued for any birth defects. Instead, his former office manager is suing him for pregnancy discrimination, wrongful termination, and wage-and-hour violations. She is seeking both compensatory and punitive damages.

Source: Courthouse News Service, “That's Hardly Holistic!” Elizabeth Warmerdam, Jan. 23, 2014

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