Siouxland Denied Jobs to Two Women Because They Were Expectant Mothers, Federal Agency Charged
PHOENIX – Siouxland Oral Maxillofacial Surgery Associates, LLP of Sioux Falls, S.D., has agreed to pay $95,000 in punitive damages and attorneys’ fees, in addition to $23,775 paid earlier this year for lost earnings and interest, to resolve a pregnancy discrimination lawsuit brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on behalf of two pregnant women discriminated against in 2002, the agency announced today. Siouxland is a medical clinic in Sioux Falls that specializes in oral and maxillofacial surgery.
The EEOC’s suit charged that Richelle Dooley was fired days after Siouxland learned of her pregnancy, and that a few months later, Siouxland refused to hire Angie Gacke after learning in an employment interview that Gacke was pregnant.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate based on pregnancy when making hiring or employment decisions. The EEOC filed suit after first attempting to reach a voluntary settlement out of court through its conciliation process.
There was a jury trial on the case in Sioux Falls in April 2007, where the jury found that Siouxland had intentionally discriminated against Dooley and Gacke because of their pregnancies and awarded $21,098 in lost earnings. EEOC appealed because the trial judge had refused to give the jury an instruction on punitive damages. Under the Civil Rights Act of 1991, punitive damages are available where it is proven that the employer engaged in discrimination with malice or reckless indifference to the civil rights of the claimant.
On August 27, 2009, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision upholding the jury verdict for the claimants, and additionally holding that the jury should have been instructed on punitive damages. [See EEOC et al v. Siouxland Oral Maxillofacial Surgery Associates, L.L.P., 578 F.3d 921 (8th Cir. 2009).] As a result of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decision, the case was returned to Sioux Falls for a second trial on punitive damages. This second trial was scheduled for June 22, 2010. After the appeal was decided, Siouxland paid the two women $23,775 for the back pay amounts previously awarded, plus interest. As a result of the parties’ agreement to resolve the remaining punitive damages and attorneys’ fees claims for $95,000, the case is now completely resolved.
The settlement agreement filed in U.S. District Court for Southern District of South Dakota (EEOC, et. al. v. Siouxland Maxillofacial Surgery Assoc., LLP CIV. 044215) also includes Siouxland’s agreement to provide training for Siouxland employees and supervisors on sex and pregnancy discrimination as well as reporting by Siouxland to the EEOC on other complaints of sex discrimination, including pregnancy bias.
“This was a clear-cut case of blatant pregnancy discrimination,” EEOC Appellate Attorney Daniel Vail said, “and the evidence the EEOC presented at trial showed that the decision makers at Siouxland knew that their actions were illegal. The EEOC will prosecute these cases vigorously – at trial and on appeal – including seeking punitive damages against employers who either maliciously or recklessly violate the rights of pregnant women.”
Mary Jo O’Neill, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Phoenix District, which litigated the case with lawyers from its Denver and Albuquerque offices along with private counsel, said, “In recent years, we have seen a very significant increase in the number of pregnancy discrimination charges where women are fired, not hired, or treated differently solely because they are pregnant. We are pleased with the result in this case, which sends a powerful message to employers that this kind of discrimination can be very costly for them.”
EEOC Acting District Director Rayford Irvin added, “We are very pleased with the result in this case and we are pleased that our legal unit and appellate office were so successful in obtaining justice for these two women. Pregnant women who want to work should be allowed to do so without discrimination.”
The EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. Further information about the EEOC is available on its web site at www.eeoc.gov.