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Dismissal of Liberty Mutual pregnancy discrimination case upheld

Posted On: Apr. 14, 2015 12:00 AM CST

A U.S. appeals court has affirmed dismissal of a pregnancy discrimination and retaliation lawsuit filed by a former Liberty Mutual Group Inc. sales representative, stating her evidence was insufficient to support her claims.

Autumn K. Brown began working as a sales representative for Boston-based Liberty Mutual In 2004, and as a lead sales representative received the assistance of a sales associate, according to last week’s ruling by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans in Autumn K. Brown v. Liberty Mutual Group Inc.

On Jan. 11, 2011, Ms. Brown told her supervisor, Lynn Peters, that she was pregnant, and Ms. Peters responded she had never had a pregnant person in her office before, according to the ruling.

Shortly after, Ms. Peters began to question Ms. Brown’s sales performance and admonished her that she risked losing her sales associate’s assistance if Ms. Brown failed to meet her sales expectations, according to the ruling.

Meanwhile, during the first week of January, an auditor who was unaware of Ms. Brown’s pregnancy discovered a number of insurance policies in which the information Ms. Brown entered did not match the information provided by the policyholders, the ruling says. Although meetings were held on the matter, Ms. Brown received no disciplinary action as a result of the audit, the ruling said.

In February, Ms. Brown went on a previously scheduled vacation to South Africa. Upon her return, she requested and received short-term disability and medical leave under the Family Medical Leave Act. In April 2011, before the end of her medical leave, she resigned from her position with Liberty Mutual.

About a year later, she filed suit against the insurer, stating it had subjected her to pregnancy-based discrimination, a hostile work environment and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as interference with her FMLA rights.

The U.S. District Court in Dallas granted Liberty Mutual summary judgment dismissing the case, and a three-judge appeals court panel unanimously upheld the ruling.

“Brown argues that Peters’ exhortations to improve her sales performance and threats to take away her sales associate constituted a constructive discharge by forcing Brown to resign. However, informal criticisms of an employee’s work rarely suffices to support a finding of construction termination,” the appeals panel said.

The ruling also states that “neither Peters nor any other employees made any derogatory comments regarding Brown’s pregnancy other than Peters’ initial observation she had not had a pregnant employee before Brown,” and “more importantly, the treatment experienced was not so severe as to create an abusive working environment.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has revived a part-time worker’s pregnancy discrimination suit against United Parcel Service Inc., which experts say puts employers on notice that they should review their light-duty programs with respect to pregnant women.