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Several statutes protect pregnant employees from discrimination and retaliation. But those laws don't guarantee employees' permanent job security.

When employers have legitimate, nondiscriminatory business reasons for eliminating a position, they can do so. The key is providing a solid reason before you make the decision and documenting everything leading up to the decision.

Employees will no doubt try to argue that an employer's stated reason for eliminating a position was actually just a pretext or excuse for discrimination.

To do this, employees must offer proof. An employee's subjective belief or hunch that discrimination motivated the employer isn't enough.

Case in point: Michelle Williams notified her employer, Sterling Healthcare Services, after discovering she was pregnant. Four months later, the company decided to eliminate her position as part of its consolidation efforts and because the firm had lost a major client.

The company fired Williams a few days after she returned from maternity leave.

Williams sued for wrongful termination on the basis of pregnancy discrimination in violation of Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act and retaliation in violation of the FMLA. She argued that her performance evaluations dropped after she became pregnant, plus that the company misled her about the job's elimination.

The 5th Circuit Court sided with the company, ruling that Williams failed to show that Sterling's reasons for firing her were a pretext for discrimination. The court said, "At best, Williams's evidence indicates that Sterling did a poor job in handling her termination, but her claims do nothing to call into question the veracity of Sterling's explanation that her job was terminated as part of a reduction in force." (Williams v. Sterling Healthcare Services, Inc., No. 05-30937, 5th Cir., 2006)

Final tip: In this case, the employer had evidence of its legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons supporting the termination decision. To minimize the risk of potential liability and protracted litigation, such evidence must be developed and maintained in all personnel decisions.  

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