Senior U.S. District Judge Arthur Spiegel (Southern District of Ohio) ruled on January 30 that Christa Dias, who was fired as a computer technology coordinator from two schools of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati after she told her principal at one of the schools that she was pregnant, is entitled to a jury trial of her pregnancy discrimination complaint under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but not of her breach of contract claim. Unbeknownst to the schools, Dias was in a relationship with a same-sex partner while employed there.
Judge Spiegel relates that when Dias became pregnant, she told the principal at one of the schools, who made inquiries of higher authorities and then told Dias that she would probably lose her job because she was pregnant and unmarried. This would be a violation of the “morals” provision of her employment contract, which required her to comport herself in compliance with Roman Catholic teachings, which disapprove of premarital sex. Dias responded that she did not become pregnant from sex, but rather from “artificial insemination.” The R.C. Church doesn’t approve of that either, so she was dismissed from her jobs.
She sued under Title VII, which forbids sex discrimination and provides that the ban on sex discrimination also includes discrimination because of pregnancy. She also argued that the employer had terminated her contract without good cause. In defense, the employer argued that it was entitled to the ministerial exemption as a religious institution, and that Dias could not bring suit under her contract because she had violated the morals clause, which provided them with a valid reason for her discharge.
In an earlier ruling, on March 29, 2012, Judge Spiegel rejected the “ministerial exemption” defense, finding that it only extends to employees who are hired to fulfill religious functions. There was no indication that somebody hired as a computer technology coordinator was performing such functions. Indeed, Judge Spiegel found that Dias was not a minister, was not hired to teach religion, and as a non-Catholic was not even permitted to teach religion in a Catholic school. Judge Spiegel also found in that earlier ruling that there seemed to be a lack of “meeting of the minds” about whether the “morals clause” of the contract would be violated by an unmarried female employee becoming pregnant through artificial insemination, so there was a “question of fact as to whether Plaintiff knew she was barred from such action.”
After Judge Spiegel issued the earlier ruling, discovery got under way and the further fact emerged that Dias was living in a homosexual relationship with another woman while employed by the Archdiocese, another violation of Catholic teaching, which she had kept secret from her employer. The employer argued that new facts emerging in discovery also bolstered its contention that the ministerial exemption applies to this case. Both parties moved for summary judgment.
The Archdiocese lost on the argument that the ministerial exemption would apply. Judge Spiegel rejected the argument that new facts emerging during discovery would change his conclusion. The Archdiocese argued that all teachers were “role models” and thus “ministers” in this context, but Judge Spiegel was unshaken from his prior conclusion that because Dias was “not permitted to teach Catholic doctrine, she cannot be considered a ‘minister’ of the Catholic faith.” He also rejected an argument that the Archdiocese was not a proper defendant because the schools hire and fire faculty autonomously, pointing out that the Archdiocese sets the overall employment policies for its schools and maintains centralized control of management and labor relations.
As to the pregnancy discrimination issue, it is clear on its face that the employer has a policy of not employing pregnant women who are unmarried, which looks like a facial violation of Title VII, although Spiegel was unwilling to accept Dias’s contention that terminating an employee for this reason is automatically a violation. On the other hand, Dias did agree to an employment contract with a morals clause, and the Archdiocese argues that a clear violation of the morals clause gives it a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for discharge. “The morals clause in this case lacks specificity such that only an evaluation of the decision-makers’ testimony can show whether their initial reason for terminating Plaintiff was simply enforcement of a policy against premarital sex,” Judge Spiegel wrote. “This in the Court’s view is a factual determination for a jury: to answer why Defendant really terminated Plaintiff.”
Spiegel then asserted that the defendant would be guilty of sex-discrimination if its policy against premarital sex was not evenhandedly administered. The plaintiff contends that the morals clause is used to dismiss women who become pregnant but not men who have premarital sex. So at trial, it would behoove the Archdiocese to come up with examples of single male employees who were dismissed for getting their girlfriends pregnant, or married male employees dismissed upon discovery that they were having extra-marital affairs.
“This case offers the further twist of a second proffered reason for Plaintiff’s termination,” wrote Spiegel. “After Plaintiff informed Defendants she was pregnant through the means of artificial insemination, they responded that such means of becoming pregnant was also justification for her termination.” Although 6th Circuit caselaw suggests that the way a person becomes pregnant may be relevant in the context of evaluating an employer’s policy against premarital sex, Judge Spiegel said that the more immediate issue was, again, whether a policy against unmarried employees using artifical insemination was applied without regard to sex. He found that “the Plaintiff has raised a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Defendant has enforced its policy as to men.” The Archdiocese maintains that it is consistent on this, but another fact emerged in discovery: “a former male employee of a parish within the Archdiocese, who testified he engaged in artificial insemination without being fired.” So there is a jury question about consistency of the policy.
Because the Archdiocese did not fire Dias due to her homosexual relationship, something of which they were unaware until it became known during discovery in this case, that is not an issue in the Title VII claim. However, Judge Spiegel found that it was an issue in the breach of contract claim. He pointed out that Dias had admitted in discovery “that she kept such fact secret from Defendants as she knew Defendants would view her relationship as a violation of the morals clause. Under such circumstances, the Court finds Plaintiff, with ‘unclean hands,’ cannot invoke a cause of action based on a contract she knew she was breaching.” Finding that the contract issue was distinct from the Title VII issue, Spiegel granted summary judgment against Dias on her breach of contract claim, but said that this “in no way absolves Defendants of any responsibility to conform to the requirements of law against pregnancy discrimination.”
Finding that summary judgment on the Title VII claim was inappropriate due to the remaining factual issues in dispute, Judge Spiegel said that the scheduled pretrial conference will be held on February 27 and the trial will begin on or about March 19.