Alan Schorr’s Employment Case of The Week ending June 7, 2013

Dias v. Archdiocese of Cincinnati, 1:11-cv-251 (S.D. Ohio 2013) (Jury Verdict – June 4, 2013)

This week’s Case of the Week is a fascinating case out of the Southern District of Ohio, Western Division. It involves that thorny intersection of religion and anti-discrimination, with a crazy twist that created a case of first impression which is certain to climb the ladder of federal appeals. Ms. Dias won a jury verdict of $171,000.00 at trial, but it was a rocky road and it is likely that there will be much more to come.

Crista Dias was an employee, a computer technology coordinator, at two of the Cincinnati Archdiocese’s schools. She became pregnant through artificial insemination. She was unmarried. When she told her principal that she was pregnant, the principal informed her that she would probably lose her job because she was pregnant and unmarried. At that point, Ms. Dias informed the principal that she had become pregnant not through premarital sex but through artificial insemination. The defendants then offered a second reason, stating she was terminated for being pregnant by means of artificial insemination. There was no factual dispute that defendants offered both reasons in justification of Plaintiff’s termination.

Ms. Dias filed suit in Ohio Federal Court under Title VII and the Ohio anti-discrimination law, which the Court ruled followed the same analysis as federal law. Ms. Dias survived two motions to dismiss and a summary judgment motion on the way to trial. (Read the Summary Judgment opinion here). The defendants argued that they are protected from suit by the “ministerial exception” to Title VII. The ministerial exception is a First Amendment doctrine that bars most employment-related lawsuits brought against religious organizations by employees performing religious functions. In this case, the Court held that, as a computer teacher, Ms. Dias did not fall into the ministerial exception.

Interestingly, the Court held that Ms. Dias could have been legitimately fired if the employer’s reason was due to the fact that she had premarital sex and the defendant enforced the policy evenly for men and women. However, the evidence showed that only women had been terminated for premarital sex, and only after they had become pregnant. As men cannot become pregnant, there had never been an occasion to ask a male employee if he engaged in premarital sex. Then there was the strange twist that Ms. Dias insisted that she had not engaged in premarital sex, but rather had been artificially inseminated. There, the Court pointed out the tension between the Church’s doctrine and a woman’s right to procreate. Again, the Court ruled that a jury could find that men who participated in artificial insemination (I suppose through sperm donation) had not been similarly treated, and therefore the policies could be administered in a discriminatory fashion.

Another interesting twist in this case is that it came out in discovery that Ms. Dias was homosexual. That would have provided another reason for her termination, but it was undisputed that the church was unaware of Ms. Dias’s sexual orientation at the time of her termination. Since federal law does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, it would have been very interesting had the Church used sexual orientation as the sole reason for termination.

Ms. Dias won at trial. The jury awarded $20,000 in compensatory damages, $51,000 in back pay, and $100,000 in punitive damages.

While New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination is generally broader and more inclusive than federal law, this is one case that would have failed under the NJLAD even though it succeeded under federal law. That is because the religious exemption under the NJLAD is broader than the federal ministerial exception. Under the NJLAD, there is a broad exemption:

for a religious association or organization to utilize religious affiliation as a uniform qualification in the employment of clergy, religious teachers or other employees engaged in the religious activities of the association or organization, or in following the tenets of its religion in establishing and utilizing criteria for employment of an employee.

Although there is no case on point interpreting whether this would apply to teachers in a religious school, the plain language would seem to protect a religious institution that terminates a teacher whose behavior violates Church tenets. Accordingly, New Jersey non-ministerial employees of religious institutions will have better protection under Title VII than they will under the NJLAD.

It should be interesting to follow this case through its appeals.

Plaintiff’s counsel: Brian Joseph Butler, Robert Alan Klingler.

Defendants’ counsel: Andrea Dawn Rose, Graydon Head, Steven Paul Goodin, Zoraida M. Vale.

Summary Judgment Judge: S. Arthur Spiegel, U.S.D.J.

Trial Judge – Susan J. Dlott, U.S.D.J.