A former senior account manager has filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the National Basketball Association, Inc., alleging that the NBA “pays lip service to gender equality” and is “openly hostile to working mothers.” In the lawsuit, Brynn Cohn claims that the NBA instituted a change in work schedule while she was on maternity leave that essentially forced her and two other women with childcare responsibilities to resign.
In the department where Cohn worked, women with young children were “routinely met with eye-rolling and snide comments, and denied the same pay and promotion opportunities as other employees,” she says.
The lawsuit charges the NBA and its subsidiaries with violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act and New Jersey state statutes. The lawsuit seeks front and back pay, $3 million of compensatory and punitive damages and attorney’s fees, cost and expenses. The case is Cohn v. National Basketball Association, Inc., No. 12 CV 7888 (S.D. N.Y. Oct. 23, 2012).
“The allegations are without merit, and we will vigorously defend against them,” said NBA senior vice president of basketball communications Tim Frank.
Cohn had worked a routine 9-to-5 schedule in the creative services department at the NBA for nearly 10 years. In June 2010, she began her maternity leave on short-term disability and subsequently extended the leave under FMLA.
During her time off, Cohn’s senior director informed her that all account managers and designers in the department’s print group were now required to work in the office from noon to 8 p.m. two days a week.
Cohn expressed concern that she could not afford a full-time nanny for the extended night hours because she was already paying $24,000 per year for child care services beginning January 2011. She also could not locate a day care center within proximity of her Hoboken, N.J., home or Secaucus, N.J., office that stayed open later than 7 p.m.
The senior director allegedly refused to consider Cohn’s request to work from home two days a week as she had done on the nights she was needed before going on maternity leave.
The NBA Assist Program offers employees flexible work arrangements under certain circumstances, but Cohn contends that she was unable to apply because she and two other working mothers who also resigned were told that they had to be physically present in the office during the extended hours.
The NBA, says Cohn, is attempting to “purge the [creative services] department of women with young children.” Cohn alleges that one director told her co-worker that “she would have to make a choice between being a mother and working at the NBA.”
Before her scheduled return from FMLA leave, Cohn resigned from her position effective December 2010. After her resignation, she learned that the NBA’s print department reverted back to normal business hours in or around February 2011. According to Cohn, she and the other working mothers who were forced to resign did not know that the new extended hours were temporary.
Brynn Cohn is accusing the NBA of denying working mothers like her the same advancement opportunities afforded to men and women without children. At the NBA, she says, pregnant women and women with young children often are stereotyped as being less committed to their careers.
Cohn alleges that the NBA retaliated against her for exercising her federally protected right to take maternity leave.
Does she have a case? Well, under FMLA, “the employee is ordinarily entitled to return to the same shift or the same or an equivalent work schedule.” 29 C.F.R. §825.215(e)(2). But that will be for a judge (and perhaps, jury) to decide.
Regardless of the verdict, there’s no denying that court cases about pregnant workers and their rights as employees seem to be multiplying like rabbits these days. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recorded the resolution of 6,482 Title VII pregnancy discrimination charges in fiscal 2011. This compares to 4,280 resolutions filed in fiscal 2001, a 50-percent increase in 10 years.
Many pregnancy discrimination allegations (including FMLA interference and retaliation claims) involve mothers who contend their attempts to return to the workforce are being derailed by caregiving challenges, difficult pregnancies and/or ill-advised employers.
Some of these cases may involve isolated situations of brazen management behavior. However, other cases may be the result of a lack of understanding about maternity leave and an employer’s obligations.
This interpersonal and professional disconnect clearly is an upward trending human resources matter. For recent examples, you need to look no further than Wanamaker v. Westport Board of Education, No. 3:11-cv-1791 (VLB), Sept. 25, 2012, and Mayorga v. Alorica, Inc., No. 12-21578-CIV-HUCK/BANDSTRA, (S.D. Fla. July 25, 2012).