Key Decisions

January 2013 – Court Erred With Jury Instructions In Pregnancy Discrimination Case

(filed under: Key Decisions | January 16, 2013)

Court Erred With Jury Instructions In Pregnancy Discrimination Case

Veronese v. Lucasfilm Ltd.
(Cal. Ct. of App., 1st Dist.), filed December 10, 2012

KEY FACTS

Lucasfilm is a privately held film and entertainment company founded by George Lucas. It has a campus in the Presidio in San Francisco and two properties in Marin County, Skywalker Ranch and Big Rock Ranch. Lucas lives in San Anselmo, at a property that was frequently referred to below as “Parkway” or the estate; it is a large complex with as many as nine houses on it. Sarita Patel was the estate manager. Patel generally supervised six employees, though if there were construction or other projects at the estate, she would oversee as many as 50 people.

Lucasfilm sought an Executive Assistant for Patel. The position was one that was very demanding and involved significant caretaking responsibilities relative to the Lucas family. Patel considered it important that her assistant be the “right fit,” meaning that she looked at the assistant relationship as “almost like a marriage. . . . [Y]ou spend a lot of time with this person working on . . . intimate details, a lot of chaos. [¶] So the fit is how you get along. Do you bug each other? How you brainstorm together. How do you solve problems.”

Veronese was interviewed for the position and there was a great deal of communications by way of email. Patel had some personal doubts that Veronese would be a “good fit.” Lucasfilm decided to hire Veronese as a consultant for a term of one month to assist Patel and to use that month to assess whether she was a “good fit” for the position.

Before Veronese’s start date, Veronese called Patel to tell her she was pregnant and that she had been feeling nauseous and sick. She asked if she could come in late on the day she was to start.

Patel responded that Veronese’s health was most important, that the job was not going anywhere and that the whole thing should be delayed until Veronese was up to it. Later, Veronese’s start date was deferred because of concerns about how certain chemical fumes on the premises might affect her and her pregnancy and because Lucasfilm wanted the fumes to be dissipated.

After further communications and as a result of one particular email from Veronese, Patel concluded that Veronese was not a “good fit.” Patel became concerned about candor, integrity, flexibility, and the potential for misunderstanding or miscommunication. Perhaps most importantly, Patel perceived selfishness in Veronese’s email, that she was thinking about herself rather than providing support. In short, the email raised “red flags” to Patel, including that Veronese felt she was “entitle[d],” that she was not service-oriented, and that she had unreasonable expectations.

As a result, the entire idea of hiring Veronese was abandoned.

Veronese responded by suing for pregnancy discrimination. She alleged six causes of action.

Following 11 days of testimony, five causes of action were submitted to the jury in a special verdict form. After three days of deliberation, the jury found for Veronese on three claims – pregnancy discrimination, failure to prevent pregnancy discrimination, and wrongful termination in violation of public policy. The jury found for Lucasfilm on the other two claims – retaliation and failure to accommodate disability.

Lucasfilm appealed based on what it claimed was error in the instructions the judge gave to the jury.

HOLDING & REASONING

The Court of Appeal reversed. It found that the judge made errors in instructing the jury and that these errors were prejudicial to Lucasfilm.

The trial court erred in failing to give Lucasfilm’s proposed special instruction that: “You may not find that Lucasfilm discriminated or retaliated against Julie Gilman Veronese based upon a belief that Lucasfilm made a wrong or unfair decision. Likewise, you cannot find liability for discrimination or retaliation if you find that Lucasfilm made an error in business judgment. Instead, Lucasfilm can only be liable to Julie Gilman Veronese if the decisions made were motivated by discrimination or retaliation related to her being pregnant.”

Numerous California cases contain language similar to what Lucasfilm proposed. A plaintiff in a discrimination case must show discrimination, not just that the employer’s decision was wrong, mistaken, or unwise. An employer may fire an employee for a good reason, a bad reason, a reason based on erroneous facts, or for no reason at all, as long as its action is not for a discriminatory reason.

The trial court erred in giving Veronese’s proposed instruction that said, “A potential hazard to a fetus or an unborn child is not a defense to pregnancy discrimination.”

While such an instruction was an accurate statement of the law, there was no issue as to whether the decision not to hire Veronese was because of any concerns about her fetus. Thus, the instruction could be interpreted as telling the jury that if anyone at Lucasfilm was even concerned about Veronese’s fetus, it was per se illegal regardless of its impact or lack thereof on the hiring decision.

The trial court also erred in failing to instruct the jury on the difference between a “failure to hire” claim and a “wrongful termination” claim.

ANALYSIS

One interesting aspect of this case was that Veronese was no ordinary plaintiff. She married Joseph Alioto Veronese, the son of San Francisco attorney (and former supervisor) Angela Alioto and the grandson of the late attorney (and San Francisco Mayor) Joseph L. Alioto. Mr. Veronese is himself an attorney, and Ms. Alioto and he represented Veronese throughout the case. The decision offers a good discussion of pregnancy discrimination law.