Jury Must Decide Whether Employee Fired Because of Pregnancy or Insubordination

On August 3, 2017, New Jersey’s Appellate Division reversed a trial court’s opinion that had dismissed an employee’s pregnancy discrimination case, finding enough evidence from which a jury could conclude that the company’s claim it fired her for insubordination was a pretext for (excuse to cover up) discrimination.

Employee wins appeal in pregnancy discrimination caseSandra Roopchand worked as a medical technician for Complete Care, a medical office, from January 2013 through July 2014. The business was run by two brothers-in-law, Richard Schaller, M.D. and Robert Fallon, D.C.  Ms. Roopchand’s job duties included patient care, administrative responsibilities and cleaning and restocking the exam rooms. Up until the day she was fired, Complete Care had never disciplined Ms. Roopchand or criticized her about her job performance.

In early July 2014, Ms. Roopchand learned she was pregnant.  Since she suffers from hypothyroidism, her pregnancy was considered high-risk.

On July 24, 2014, Ms. Roopchand told her supervisor, Dr. Schaller, that she was pregnant.  Dr. Schaller congratulated her.  Later that day, Ms. Roopchand told Dr. Schaller her pregnancy was high risk and she needed to see her obstetrician weekly.

On July 29, 2014, Ms. Roopchand told Dr. Fallon she was pregnant.  Dr. Fallon told her that he already knew she was pregnant and congratulated her.  Ms. Roopchand did not tell Dr. Fallon her pregnancy was high-risk because she assumed Dr. Schaller had already told him.  Later that morning, Ms. Roopchand overheard Dr. Schaller whisper to Dr. Fallon: “I don’t care, she’s a liability.”

Later that day, Dr. Fallon instructed Ms. Roopchang to wash the windows on the second floor of the building.  Ms. Roopchand, apparently believing Dr. Fallon was joking, responded by saying: “I don’t do windows.”  This was the first time anyone had asked Ms. Roopchand to wash windows, a task that apparently would have required her to climb a ladder.  Dr. Fallon repeated his instruction for Ms. Roopchand to wash the windows two more times, but Ms. Roopchand refused.  Dr. Fallon then fired Ms. Roopchand, purportedly for insubordination.

Ms. Roopchand sued Complete Care, Dr. Fallon and Dr. Schaller for pregnancy discrimination in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”).  The trial court dismissed her case, finding no evidence that “insubordination” was a pretext for pregnancy discrimination.  The judge also noted that Ms. Roopchand’s doctor had not placed her on any work restrictions when she refused to wash the windows.

Ms. Roopchand appealed.  On August 3, 2017, in Roopchand v. Complete Care, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s ruling.  It ruled there is enough evidence for a jury to find that Complete Care fired Ms. Roopchand because she was pregnant.  This evidence includes the fact that Dr. Schaller and Dr. Fallon (1) apparently referred to Ms. Roopchand as a liability on the day Complete Care fired her; (2) had never required Ms. Roopchand to wash windows before she announced she was pregnant; (3) had never required another employee to wash windows; and (4) did not fire another employee who had been repeatedly insubordinate.

Accordingly, the Appellate Division sent Ms. Roopcands’ case back to the Law Division for a trial.