The Minnesota Supreme Court today overturned a discrimination decision against a St. Louis Park orthodontist, who rescinded a job offer to a woman after finding out she was pregnant.
The court rejected a December 2015 Minnesota Court of Appeals decision (I first wrote about it here) that declared Nicole LaPoint was owed damages for discrimination from Dr. Angela Ross, owner of Family Orthodontics, because her job offer was withdrawn after LaPoint told her she was two months pregnant and hoped to take maternity time. LaPoint suggested 12 weeks of leave; Ross said her policy was only six.
At a trial in district court, which found for the clinic, Ross said the job wasn’t rescinded because LaPoint was pregnant, but because of the disagreement over the amount of leave.
Today, the Supreme Court said it’s only discrimination under the Minnesota Human Rights Act if LaPoint can prove she lost the job because she was pregnant.
“Family Orthodontics emphasizes that the district court found that the length of leave requested was the ‘overriding concern,’ or the ‘only one reason [that] truly factored into [the] decision’ and the ‘sole reason Dr. Ross declined to hire Plaintiff,’ and argues that the district court based these findings on Dr. Ross’s testimony, which the court found ‘highly credible,’” chief justice Lorie Gildea wrote in today’s opinion.
Justice Gildea acknowledged that remarks Ross made to LaPoint about her not disclosing her pregnancy — it would have been illegal for Ross to inquire whether LaPoint was pregnant — are a concern and provide evidence that it motivated the job offer’s withdrawal, but said the district court found Ross’ explanation that the issue was the length of leave credible.
“We do not lightly disturb that finding,” Gildea wrote.
“Dr. Ross contemporaneously cited two reasons for her decision to withdraw the job offer,” Justice Margaret Chutich countered in her dissent. “She did this not once, but three times, referring each time to (1) LaPoint’s choice not to disclose her pregnancy at the interview, and (2) LaPoint’s request for 12 weeks of maternity leave.”
By prohibiting employers from requiring the disclosure of pregnancy or childbirth information during interviews, this provision of the Act combats the well-documented phenomenon of unconscious bias against pregnant women and mothers in employment.
This bias does not necessarily arise from hostility toward pregnant women. For example, pregnant women are likely to be perceived as ‘more warm, but less competent, than women without children and men with children.’
Common stereotypes associated with motherhood include ‘that women with small children will be less dependable or productive than other employees; that mothers will not, or should not, work long hours; and that mothers are not committed to their jobs.’To combat the effects of this bias against pregnant women, the Act gives applicants the right to withhold information relating to pregnancy or childbirth before receiving a job offer.
Chutich’s dissent mirrored the reasoning of Justice Michael Kirk of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, who said in a 2015 decision that a link existed between LaPoint’s pregnancy and the rescission of the job offer.
Kirk said if the company’s decision was really based on the maternity leave, it could have informed LaPoint about the six-weeks policy and allowed her to decide whether to accept the job offer based on that policy.
Chutich was joined in the dissent by Justice Anne McKeig.
The Supreme Court arguments in the case were made before students at Albert Lea High School last October.