Law firm faces trial on HR manager’s pregnancy claims

A handy guide on what not to do.

A federal judge in Florida has ruled that a former Human Resources manager for a law firm will get a jury trial on her claims related to her termination right before she was due to return from maternity leave. 

The alleged facts of this case occurred in 2019, long before the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act was signed into law. All the more reason for employers to pay attention. Things are only going to get harder from now on.

Even outside the context of pregnancy accommodation, the case also has some painful reminders about how -- and how not -- to terminate an employee.

Sandy Harrigan was hired in February 2019 to be the law firm’s HR manager. The next month, she learned that she was pregnant, and told her immediate boss and the firm CEO. She requested, and was granted, time off on a number of occasions to go to doctor’s appointments.

In July 2019, she had unspecified complications, and her doctor recommended that she be allowed to “work from home as much as possible to allow for lateral rest time.” I’m not sure what “lateral rest time” means, but I assume that for her it meant taking breaks or lying down periodically throughout the day. Ms. Harrigan asked her boss whether she could work from home.

The boss said no, but said she could work a reduced schedule at the office. 

(In the firm's defense, this was pre-COVID, when working remotely was not as common as it was soon to become.)

In any event, the baby was born in October 2019, mother and baby were both fine, and Ms. Harrigan began her maternity leave. While she was on leave, the law firm contacted her and asked her to return to work early. Wow! They must have really liked her! Ms. Harrigan agreed, and an early return date was set. (Since she had been employed less than a year, she would not have been entitled to leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.)

Ms. Harrington returned to work early, and everyone lived happily ever after.

I was just kidding.

Five days before Ms. Harrington was scheduled to come back to work, the law firm fired her. According to the firm, she was a terrible employee with all kinds of performance issues.

The problem for the firm was that she had never been disciplined or even counseled about any performance issues. Ever. And her alleged worst mistake occurred in July or August 2019, so the firm had had plenty of time to address it before the baby was born.

As the judge noted, “The circumstances surrounding her firing are, at minimum, peculiar.” He got that right.

Why on earth did they ask her to come back early, only to fire her before she could do it? Were they hoping the request to come back early would get her to quit, and she foiled them by agreeing to it? I have no idea, but I agree with the judge that it was "peculiar."

At minimum.

If she was indeed a poor performer, of course the firm should have addressed those issues with her and documented them as well. And they should never have asked her to return to work ahead of schedule, which indicates that she was a good performer. 

Ms. Harrington also claimed, in this pre-PWFA lawsuit, that the law firm violated her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Florida Civil Rights Act by failing to make reasonable accommodations for her pregnancy-related complications.

The firm will have to go to trial on these claims, too.


The firm contended that it could not accommodate Ms. Harrington's need to work from home because being onsite was an essential function of her job. There were a few problems with this, too. The firm already allowed two other management-level employees to work remotely. Also, Ms. Harrington's job description said nothing about the need to be onsite, and the duties specified in the job description that required employee interaction seemed capable of being performed via phone or email.

The firm also tried to argue that, in any event, it did accommodate Ms. Harrington by shortening her work day by two and a half hours. Could be, but Ms. Harrington contended that in fact she was working her full schedule almost every day. Sometimes, she said, she worked more than an eight-hour day. That means a jury will have to decide whether the firm actually gave her a reduced schedule or not.

The court also noted that, since her doctor said she needed “lateral rest,” there was a question as to whether even a reduced onsite schedule would have accommodated her condition. So the jury will also have to decide whether the reduced schedule -- assuming it was provided -- was in fact a reasonable accommodation. And her request to work from home full-time was arguably not “unreasonable” because it was only for a couple of months. And did I mention that they let other people work from home?

Of course, this was only a decision denying the law firm's motion for summary judgment. A jury could end up finding in favor of the law firm. But, as the Magic 8 Ball would say, "Outlook not so good."

You may have deduced that the law firm doesn't do employment law. You deduced correctly. 

Robin Shea has 30 years' experience in employment litigation, including Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (including the Amendments Act). 
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