The Committee, First Shift Justice Project, and Andrews Kurth File Lawsuit Against University of the District of Columbia for Illegally Firing Worker Because She Took Leave to Care for Herself and Her Newborn Son

WASHINGTON, DC – Earlier this week, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, First Shift Justice Project, and Andrews Kurth LLP filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Kashawna Holmes against her former employer, the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), for unlawfully terminating her employment while she was on maternity leave in 2014. Ms. Holmes’ termination followed several months of harassment and hostility from her supervisor, who had made derogatory comments about her marital status and living arrangements and had questioned Ms. Holmes’ need to attend prenatal doctors’ appointments.

Approximately three months before her due date, Ms. Holmes’ physician placed her on complete bed rest because of a medical complication related to her high-risk pregnancy. UDC approved Ms. Holmes’ request for medical leave under the D.C. Family and Medical Leave Act (DCFMLA) and assured Ms. Holmes that her job would be protected. Nevertheless, several weeks after she went on leave and just three weeks before her due date, UDC posted Ms. Holmes’ position online. When she became aware of this, Ms. Holmes became stressed and anxious and developed high blood pressure. For her and her unborn baby’s safety, her doctor scheduled her for an early delivery by induction and she gave birth several weeks before the baby’s due date.

Shortly after her son’s birth, Ms. Holmes learned that UDC had terminated her employment. While Ms. Holmes was still on job-protected leave, her supervisor notified her via email that her employment would be terminated on September 30, 2014 – just one day before D.C. Government workers, including Ms. Holmes, would become eligible to receive up to 8 weeks of paid family leave. Stunned and devastated, Ms. Holmes found herself without a job or health insurance to support her newborn son. In the following months, Ms. Holmes was plunged into financial insecurity and forced to rely on public benefits for the first time in her life.

“Sadly, Ms. Holmes’ experience is a common one. When women experience pregnancy-related complications and are forced to take leave earlier than they had planned, employers often refuse to accommodate their absence – even when the law requires it,” said Christine Tschiderer, an Equal Justice Works Fellow at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee whose practice focuses on protecting the rights of pregnant women and caregivers in the workplace. “No parent should have to choose between her baby’s health and a paycheck. We are bringing this case not only to enforce the rights of Kashawna Holmes, but also to ensure that other D.C. government employees can take the leave they are entitled to without the fear of losing their jobs.”

Under the DCFMLA, Ms. Holmes was eligible for both 16 weeks of medical leave to take care of her own medical needs and 16 weeks of family leave to take care of her newborn baby. The District of Columbia is one of the few states or local jurisdictions that offers more family and medical leave than federal law. But as Ms. Holmes’ experience demonstrates, for this benefit to have meaning, employers must also honor the job protections that accompany the provision of leave.

In the Complaint, Ms. Holmes asserts that UDC illegally interfered with her rights under the DCFMLA. In addition, Ms. Holmes challenges UDC’s discriminatory behavior toward a pregnant single mother whose behavior, in their view, did not conform to stereotypical female gender roles. Before Ms. Holmes began taking leave, Ms. Holmes’ supervisor forced her to disclose her pregnancy before she was ready and then commented to Holmes, in front of her co-workers, that she herself would never have considered having a baby before she was married.

“This case is emblematic of the discriminatory animus that some employers hold against single mothers,” said Laura Brown, Executive Director of First Shift Justice Project, a nonprofit that counsels low-income pregnant women and parents to assert their workplace rights, and the organization to whom Ms. Holmes first turned for assistance. “Underlying an employer’s claims of the inconvenience and disruption of having a new mother out on leave, there often lurks a deeply held – and patently false – stereotype that single mothers are less competent workers. Through this case we hope to expose this reality and attain justice for our client.”

For a copy of the complaint, click here.

Media Highlights:

Washington Post (December 17, 2015)
dcist (December 17, 2015)

Contacts:

Christine Tschiderer, 202-319-1000 ext 134, christine_tschiderer@washlaw.org

Laura Brown, 240-241-0897, lbrown@firstshift.org


ABOUT THE WASHINGTON LAWYERS’ COMMITTEE:
 The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs was established in 1968 to provide pro bono legal services to address issues of discrimination and entrenched poverty in the Washington, DC region.  Since then, it has successfully handled thousands of civil rights cases on behalf of individuals and groups in the areas of equal employment opportunity, fair housing, public accommodations, immigrant rights, disability rights, public education, and prisoners’ rights.  For more information about the Washington Lawyers’ Committee, see www.washlaw.org.

ABOUT FIRST SHIFT JUSTICE PROJECT: First Shift Justice Project was founded in 2014 to prevent job loss and workplace discrimination among low-income working parents with caregiving responsibilities. First Shift provides advice and legal counsel to low-income mothers regarding discrimination due to pregnancy and family responsibilities; family medical leave; and accommodations for pregnancy and breastfeeding. First Shift also trains medical providers regarding pregnancy accommodations and other workplace rights related to patient care. For more information, visit our website: www.firstshift.org.

ABOUT ANDREWS KURTH: Since 1902, Andrews Kurth has built its practice on the belief that “straight talk is good business.” Real answers, clear vision and mutual respect define the firm’s relationships with clients, colleagues, communities and employees. With more than 400 lawyers across 10 offices worldwide, Andrews Kurth represents a wide array of clients in multiple industries. For more information about Andrews Kurth, please visit www.andrewskurth.com.

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