A Florida woman went to work in the information technology section of her local sheriff’s office. Three years later, she informed the office that she was pregnant—and soon found herself transferred to a lower-level, more clerical and administrative job. She protested, and was briefly given her old job again—but then was fired. She sued, charging pregnancy discrimination.
What happened. “Howell” joined the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office in 2003 as a “data processing telecommunications technician,” providing on-site computer and hardware support at all the office’s locations. She was transferred to the help desk 4 months after announcing her pregnancy and fired 3 months after that.
She sued under federal and state civil rights laws and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Her case was sent to trial, and the jury awarded her $80,000 in back pay and $10,000 for emotional distress. But the judge vacated the back pay award, based on one of many arguments raised by the sheriff. Howell appealed to the 11th Circuit, which covers Alabama, Florida, and Georgia.
What the court said. Appellate judges confronted all of the Sheriff’s arguments, one at a time. They reviewed, in the process, the testimony of Howell’s immediate supervisor about the transfer to the help desk: The supervisor acknowledged that she herself had had a difficult pregnancy, she new Howell had earlier miscarried, and she was trying to protect her by giving her a desk job. She told the jury the pregnancy had played a role in the transfer.
The termination, on the other hand, had been the work of a much higher-level officer. He told the jury that he didn’t know Howell was pregnant; her immediate bosses said he did know it. He said she’d had performance problems for at least a year—problems her immediate bosses knew nothing about. One limitation that her doctor had placed on her as the pregnancy wore on was that she should not come into contact with any prison inmates, which caused her to refuse several work orders when she was returned to her old job. But judges did not see the refusal, as a direct consequence of her pregnancy, as a performance problem.
Finally, the higher-level officer claimed he’d fired Howell because she lacked the certifications required for her data processing job. But it turned out several other technicians didn’t have their certifications, either. So judges restored the jury’s entire judgment. Holland v. Sheriff of Hillsborough County, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, Nos. 11-11659 and -11884 (4/17/12).
Point to remember: Making the wrong decision for the right reasons, as Howell’s supervisor did, doesn’t make the decision right.