A former hospital manager in Washington state is about to get her day in court after claiming she was discriminated against because of her pregnancy. In Crabtree v. Jefferson Healthcare, a Washington Court of Appeals sent the case back to the trial court after finding that a genuine issue of material fact exists regarding whether a pregnant employee was discriminated against. As a result, the case will be heard and decided upon by a jury.
Plaintiff, Jillian Crabtree, was employed by the defendant, Jefferson Healthcare, as the manager of patient access services. Her employment began her employment in May of 2018. About 7 months into the job, Crabtree received her first performance evaluation. In the evaluation, Crabtree was rated as “meeting expectations” in 12 out of 16 categories. She was also given direction in the areas that needed improvement. Additionally, Crabtree’s supervisor included a two-page letter in the performance review that indicated that she was having a “nice first year” and “had done a nice job stepping into an entirely new career.”
In December 2018, Crabtree informed her supervisor that she was pregnant. The supervisor replied, “Wow. Poor Jen. She’s going to be without a whole staff this spring/summer.” The supervisor was referring to the fact that another manager on the team was pregnant as well and due during the same timeframe. Upon relaying this information to a second supervisor, Crabtree was asked if she planned to take leave, and also asked if she would be interested in taking a lesser role upon her return. Crabtree responded that she did plan to take leave, but that she liked her job and would not be interested in taking a lesser role upon her return.
In February 2019, Crabtree went to Human Resources to discuss her options for maternity leave. The day after this meeting, Crabtree was informed that she was being placed on a 30-day “Performance Improvement Plan” (PIP). Her supervisor stated that they had “noticed large gaps in her success and that she had significant performance issues.” The supervisor went on to detail ways she was not meeting expected job performance and told Crabtree that it was unlikely she would be able to meet the goals provided in the PIP in the 30-day period. The supervisor also told Crabtree that she may want to consider roles with less responsibility, or even look for other places of employment. Around this same time, the other woman on her team who was pregnant was told her job responsibilities would increase. Instead of taking on additional responsibilities, the co-worker opted to take on a lesser role with reduced pay.
Crabtree chose to work through the PIP to maintain her position with the hospital. During the 30-day PIP, Crabtree had four scheduled check-ins with her supervisor to evaluate her progress. Crabtree was told that she was doing well after the second check-in. Crabtree was also told that so long as she was making a good-faith effort to complete the PIP goals, then her improvement would be sufficient. The PIP was set to end on March 20. As of March 12th Crabtree had not completed any of the goals listed – but had made some progress. On March 15, (5 days before the PIP was set to end), the defendant fired Crabtree saying it was clear that she would not reach the goals in the PIP.
Crabtree sued her former employer, claiming that she was discriminated against in violation of the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD) and terminated because of her pregnancy. The trial court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment and Crabtree appealed.
The Discrimination Claim
WLAD prohibits employers from terminating an employee due to certain traits, including the sex of the employee. This includes discrimination against an employee who is pregnant.
Like many other courts across the country, the courts in Washington have adopted the three-step evidentiary burden-shifting test used in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, which allows an employee to establish the presence of discriminatory conduct by the employer without direct evidence. The prima facie case must include:
- Employee is within a statutorily protected class
- Terminated by employer
- Employee performed satisfactory work
If an employee can show these three elements, then a rebuttable presumption of discrimination exists. The burden then shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for the termination of the employee. If the employer successfully presents a nondiscriminatory reason, then the burden again shifts to the employee to show that the employer’s nondiscriminatory reason is a pretext for discrimination.
Here the crux of the case rests on whether the employer’s reason for terminating Crabtree’s employment was solely based on her performance issues, or if her pregnancy also played a role in the decision. Washington courts have previously concluded that even if an employer had both non-discriminatory as well as discriminatory reasons for the firing it could still be liable for an illegal firing under the WLAD. Thus, circumstantial, indirect, and inferential evidence will satisfy this burden.
In the case at hand, the defendant stated that the reason for Crabtree’s termination was her failure to accomplish the goals of the PIP. In response, Crabtree asserted that she was told by her supervisor that a good faith effort to comply with the PIP was sufficient and that throughout the PIP process she had been receiving positive and encouraging feedback from her employer. Despite this, in the termination letter, the defendant claimed that Crabtree was fired for failure to reach the PIP goals. Crabtree provided details showing that some of the claims in the termination letter were not accurate. For example, the defendant stated that the registration staff planning had not been started, but in fact, Crabtree had made progress and taken steps toward that goal. For these reasons, the court agreed that the PIP may have served as a pretextual reason for Crabtree’s termination.
Evidence of Discrimination as a Motivating Factor
Only a few weeks before being given a PIP, Crabtree was given a mostly positive performance review, with 12 of 16 categories at the “meets expectations” level. This occurred the day after Crabtree discussed her maternity leave options with Human Resources. During this period, another pregnant employee agreed to assume a lesser role upon her return from maternity leave. Whether or not there was a discriminatory intent toward pregnant employees, the facts show that the two pregnant women on the team did in fact lose their managerial roles after disclosing their pregnancies.
Defendant asserts that stray remarks do not substantiate an intent to discriminate. The court disagreed and found that there was substantially more evidence presented by the plaintiff here than mere stray comments. Another pregnant employee was potentially treated disparately, the reasons for termination given in Crabtree’s termination letter did not match the feedback she was receiving from her supervisor, the timing of being put on the PIP – a day after talking to H.R. about maternity leave – and other facts that raise issues that should be heard by a jury.
This, because of all the plaintiff’s provided evidence, the appeals court found that the plaintiff met her burden under the law and a genuine issue of fact is present for a jury to decide on this matter.
- Ensure that all employees in managerial positions are well versed and aware of proper protocols for handling an employee’s announcement of pregnancy and maternity leave.
- Be mindful of the timing of performance reviews and employee discipline and/or firing after the announcement of a pregnancy. Even if the employment action is valid, the employee could use timing to demonstrate a pretext for discrimination.
- Written performance reviews and verbal feedback given to an employee should not contradict one another.
- Do not pressure or suggest that pregnant employees take on lesser roles after giving birth. If they present a request for an alternate schedule or set of responsibilities, then the employer may explore those options with that employee at that time.