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Thursday, June 13, 2024 | Back issues
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Lucasfilm Ducks $1.2M Pregnancy Bias Verdict

(CN) - A well-connected San Francisco woman whose job offer at Lucasfilm fell through after she became pregnant must retry her discrimination claims, a California appeals court ruled.

In an email to Courthouse News, the plaintiff's attorney said this "decision is dangerous for all people who are pregnant or in any way disabled."

"Love of 'Star Wars,' or of George Lucas himself, has blurred the picture," said Angela Alioto, who is both attorney and mother-in-law to the plaintiff in this case, Julie Gilman Veronese.

"The employer can be so 'concerned' for you that he can fire you," she added.

Alioto, a former San Francisco supervisor, represents Veronese along with her son, the plaintiff's husband. They are the daughter and grandson, respectively, of former San Francisco Mayor Joseph L. Alioto.

The position for which Veronese applied would have her working as an assistant to Lucasfilm estate manager Sarita Patel, a 15-year veteran with Lucasfilm.

Considering the Alioto family status and the menial household labor involved in the assistant position, Patel said she was "skeptical" Veronese would take the job.

Patel admitted that she asked Veronese during the May 2008 interview process about her family plans.

When 38-year-old Veronese said she had been trying to conceive a child ever since marrying two years earlier, Patel relayed a story of a previous worker who had changed her mind about her work schedule after she got pregnant.

Patel testified that, while her question may have been inappropriate in the eyes of the human resources department, she asked to gauge Veronese's view of family values, since the position involved family caretaking.

Lucasfilm hired Veronese on a 30-day trial basis that was set run through July 2008. Three days before the start date, Veronese informed Patel that she was pregnant. They agreed to give Veronese some time since she didn't feel well, and Veronese emailed four days later to say she was having twins.

Patel said she had been scheduled to take a vacation in early August, so she tried to schedule Veronese's first day after that week off. During this planning, on July 22, Veronese informed Patel that one of the babies had miscarried.

Patel later suggested that the tryout begin on her return, Aug. 11, and last three weeks until the end of August.

Unhappy with the shortened contract, Veronese sent an email to Patel in which she said: "It tells me that I am being set up to fail. I can't help but think that things changed because I am pregnant."

Ultimately, Lucasfilm terminated Veronese's employment and hired another candidate. Veronese sued the company for pregnancy discrimination, wrongful termination, failure to prevent discrimination and other charges.

She said Patel was nervous about having a pregnant woman at the Lucasfilm property since it was under construction, and paint fumes could be hazardous to an unborn trial.

At trial, the court instructed the jury that "a potential hazard to a fetus or an unborn child is not a defense to pregnancy discrimination."

The jury ruled for Veronese and awarded her $113,830 in damages and $1.1 million in attorneys' fees.

Lucasfilm complained that the jury had reached the damages figure by combining numbers that have a symbolic meaning with Lucasfilm. The number 1138 is ubiquitous in Lucas movies, and "The Empire Strikes Back" had celebrated its 30th anniversary the week before trial in May 2010.

California's First Appellate District reversed the judgment and remanded it for a new trial on Monday.

It found that the trial court had improperly refused a jury instruction that Lucasfilm proposed regarding the use of "business judgment" in whether Veronese got the job.

The appellate court also took issue with the jury instruction about not considering potential hazard to a fetus as a pregnancy discrimination defense.

"The jury may well have concluded that Patel acted in part based on a concern for Veronese and her one remaining unborn child," Justice James Richman wrote for the court. "But an erroneous instruction told the jury - or at least inferred - that any such concern was categorically unlawful. This could have easily influenced the jury to find pregnancy discrimination where none was."

Veronese's attorney called this decision "stunning" in an email to Courthouse News. "Judge Richman does not live in the real world," Alioto wrote. "He can't possibly understand how many abortions will occur because of this ruling, which gets around the Supreme Court decision in Johnson Controls (1991).

"Pregnant women need to stay in their jobs because they need their paychecks," she continued. "So often, we plaintiffs' attorneys speak to young women who tell us if they keep their baby, they will be fired, and they can't pay the rent when that happens.

"When I don't hear back from them, I know they've decided to keep the job and not the baby. It's a horrible choice, and that is the position in which this appellate decision places them.

"We will fight this till the end, whether in a new trial or on appeal to the state Supreme Court," Alioto added. "Women, babies, disabled people and all people need to be protected from dangerous 'concern.'"

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