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Federal court to decide: Does firing a pregnant employee violate public policy in N.C.?

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Firing,Human Resources

A federal court has said it will soon decide a case that may make pregnancy discrimination illegal in North Carolina. At issue is whether North Carolina employers are liable for wrongful discharge if they fire a pregnant woman from her at-will job.

Recent case: Daria, a Wake Forest University employee, got great re­­views until she announced her pregnancy. Within days, her supervisor began criticizing her work, and soon she was fired.

She sued, alleging she had been wrongfully fired in violation of public policy.

Wake Forest tried to get the case dismissed, arguing Daria was an at-will employee who could be fired for any legal reason. It claimed that, because no North Carolina law prohibits discrimination against pregnant women, it was within its rights to fire an at-will employee.

The federal court hearing the case said it will ponder whether North Carolina law protects pregnant women from discrimination.

At the heart of the case is this question: Did a federal law protecting women from pregnancy discrimination that was enacted a year after North Caro­­lina banned sex discrimination (but not pregnancy discrimination) have the effect of changing North Caro­­lina law? (Leonard v. Wake Forest University, No. 1:11-CV-307, MD NC, 2012)

Note: Suing under state law offers employees the possibility of a much bigger payday. Federal law caps damage awards. But if an employee wins a wrongful-termination-in-violation-of-public-policy case under state law, the potential payout is unlimited.

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