A national women's advocacy group is urging the California Supreme Court to reinstate a $1.3 million pregnancy discrimination verdict against Lucasfilm Ltd.
The National Women's Law Center filed an amicus brief Wednesday in support of Julie Gilman Veronese, who lost a job as an aide at George Lucas' estate in San Anselmo.
"Paternalistic justifications for excluding women from employment opportunities have long been recognized as sex discrimination that harms women," the Washington, D.C.-based organization said.
Veronese sued Lucasfilm in 2009, claiming her job offer was rescinded after the company learned she was pregnant. Lucasfilm said it fired her because of other frustrations, including her inability
to commit to a starting date.
Veronese won a jury trial in Marin Superior Court, along with $113,830 in economic damages and $1.2 million in attorney's fees. But a state appeals court reversed the verdict last year, saying the trial judge made numerous errors in her jury instructions.
Veronese appealed to the state Supreme Court, which has yet to announce whether it will review the case.
One of the key appellate issues involves fetal hazards in the workplace. Lucas' estate manager, Sarita Patel, expressed concern that ongoing construction and painting projects at the estate could be a toxic hazard to Veronese's pregnancy.
At the trial, Judge Lynn O'Malley Taylor instructed the jury that "a potential hazard to a fetus
or an unborn child is not a defense to pregnancy discrimination."
The appeals court said the jury instruction, though technically correct, was improper because Lucasfilm had never claimed that defense.
Veronese's appeal to the Supreme Court addresses numerous disputes, but the brief by the National Women's Law Center focuses on the fetal hazard issue.
"The law makes clear that as long as a pregnant worker is able and willing to do the work, an employer is not permitted to 'protect' her by denying her a job the employer has decided is too difficult or dangerous," Emily Martin, the organization's vice president and general counsel, said in a statement. "Women are counting on the Supreme Court of California to clarify that the law has long prohibited an employer from denying a pregnant worker a job 'for her own good.'"
The legal group said the Supreme Court needs to step in because the lower court's ruling contradicts the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.
The brief was joined by Equal Rights Advocates, Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center, Legal Momentum and other rights groups.
Veronese's appellate lawyer, Michael Rubin of Altshuler Berzon LLP, said the brief's "careful historical and policy analysis provides several reasons why it is critical for the California Supreme Court to grant review.
"An employer's paternalistic concerns for the health of a (pregnant) employee's fetus should not be able to dictate who can work and who cannot," Rubin said. "That should be, and must be, the pregnant worker's own decision."
Veronese's lawyer at the trial was her mother-in-law, Angela Alioto, a prominent anti-discrimation lawyer and a former San Francisco supervisor.
Lucasfilm, in a statement provided by spokeswoman Lynne Hale, reiterated that Veronese's claims are meritless and the company does not discriminate against pregnant women.
"Lucasfilm has a long track record of providing support to employees with families and those wanting to start families," the statement said. "In addition to maternity leave and subsidized day care, we have programs which provide adoption assistance and assistance with infertility. As a company that has always championed working mothers we felt justice was served when the Court of Appeal ruled in our favor."
Contact Gary Klien via email at email@example.com
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