$136 Million in Pregnancy Discrimination Cases in 8 Years. How About We Stop This?

The trend toward outsized jury awards continues, while pregnancy discrimination claims are on the rise.
By: | March 26, 2020

Gender equality should be a cornerstone of every modern enterprise, but the numbers show that may not have been the case last year.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, nearly 3,000 pregnancy discrimination claims were federally accounted for, meanwhile payouts in sexual harassment cases were at an all-time high.

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By the Numbers

  • In 2019, the EEOC recovered $22.4 million in settlements for pregnancy discrimination claims, a 35% increase from the $16.6 million paid in 2018. Those figures do not include amounts recovered through litigation.

  • 7,514 charges of alleged sexual harassment were filed with the EEOC last year. Of those charges, nearly 17% were filed by males.

  • A $136.2 million total in settlements have been awarded between 2010-2018 for pregnancy discrimination claims. This represents a 32% increase from the yearly average of $17 million and doesn’t account for out-of-court settlements.

“Part of the result may be the #MeToo movement. Individuals are being more aware of what their rights are under the law, and that could drive some of the frequency,” said Chris Williams, employment practices liability product manager, Travelers Insurance.

“If you look at the average and median verdicts between 2015 they’ve increased pretty steadily … the average employment practice liability verdict in 2015 went from $337,000 in 2015 to $675,000 in 2018,” he explained.

Cultural Influence

The #MeToo Movement — which began in October 2017 after wide-spread sexual abuse allegations against disgraced filmmaker Harvey Weinstein came to light — encouraged thousands of sexual abuse victims to find their voices and pursue justice for sexual assault and harassment both inside and outside of the work place.

“The movement has empowered more victims to come forward and complain. And on the severity side of those claims, I think the awards and the settlements reflect a sympathy towards victims of sexual harassment, and that is driving up the costs of resolving those claims,” Williams said.

Another set of current events that brought attention to equal opportunity in the workplace were multiple class action lawsuits filed against large, international law firm Jones Day over their alleged “fraternity culture” and gender bias. The firm is known for representing Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

According to the Washington Post, multiple former female employees filed an April 2019 lawsuit claiming that the firm’s policies “systematically discriminate against female associates in matters of pay, promotions and pregnancy.”

In a latter August 2019 lawsuit, two married, former U.S. Supreme Court clerks who worked for Jones Day claimed that the firm’s parental leave policies were discriminatory and sexist.

Social Movements at Work

The same civil trends that led to an increase in sexual harassment settlements have led to a 32% increase in the amount of pregnancy discrimination claims this year.

Chris Williams, employment practice product liability product manager, Travelers Insurance

So are more discriminatory claims being filed, or are social movements creating less tolerant employees, more sympathetic courts and more dramatic nuclear verdicts?

Considering the number of male-filed complaints and an overall drop in filing frequency, it’s becoming increasingly clear that more people are finding their own voices to speak up against subjective treatment in the workplace. 

“The cultural focus has created a heightened awareness of employment practice liability exposures and coverage in the marketplace.”

While the number of these types of individual claims filed continues to go down, the price of solving them may continue to rise and workplace tolerance for discrimination decreases and involvement of sympathetic juries increases.

It Starts with Leadership 

So how can you avoid being involved in a messy discriminatory claim?

Even if your company leadership may always practice and exemplify appropriate conduct, sometimes it’s hard for employers to protect themselves from the liability of a toxic hire or employee misbehavior.

“I think the employer needs to make sure they understand what their obligations are under the law, and there’s a bunch of resources for that,” Williams said.

“If you have a leader that witnesses inappropriate conduct and does not take any action, that sends a message to the rest of the workforce and can be extremely damaging to the overall organization,” — Chris Williams, employment practices liability product manager, Travelers

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Resources that can be utilized to understand employer obligation and risk include the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, human resources departments, insurance carriers, and even outside counsel and lawyers.

“Those leaders also need to monitor conduct within the organization and take decisive action when they see discriminatory or inappropriate conduct.

“If you have a leader that witnesses inappropriate conduct and does not take any action, that sends a message to the rest of the workforce and can be extremely damaging to the overall organization,” Williams said.

“It really does all start at the top.” &

Emily Spennato is a staff writer with Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]