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A California appellate court has reversed a $1.2 million pregnancy discrimination verdict against Lucasfilm, finding that an error in jury instructions led to a prejudicial ruling.
The lawsuit came from Julie Veronese, who was hired to be an assistant to the manager of George Lucas‘s home. But Veronese never really got started in the role. Soon after she was hired, she became pregnant and her employment was later terminated. She sued and won several of her discrimination claims in an ensuing trial, but on Monday, an appellate court says the jury should have been more specifically directed to examine whether her firing was motivated by discrimination related to her being pregnant.
Veronese is a San Francisco native who was well connected in the Bay Area. (Her husband is the grandson of the city’s late mayor Joseph Alioto.) She was asked in the spring of 2008 by a Lucasfilm recruiter to interview for a position where the responsibilities included taking care of Lucas’ estate in San Anselmo, a large complex with as many as nine houses on it. The job was considered by Lucasfilm HR to be less than glamorous with many menial duties.
During the interview, among the questions she got was whether she wanted to have children, to which Veronese responded, “Yes.”
After the interview, over the next few weeks, Veronese had more discussions and did some “shadowing” of Sarita Patel, Lucas’ estate manager.
Things went well enough that Veronese was offered the job on June 24, 2008. Veronese signed an offer letter the next day, and then two days afterwards, she called Patel to tell her she was pregnant.
Veronese couldn’t start right away because she wasn’t feeling well. As the start date got pushed back, animosity grew between Veronese and Patel. The new hire felt that her pregnancy had changed things. Patel testified that she perceived “red flags” in Veronese’s communications with her. Eventually, they had a discussion where Patel said there was agreement that Veronese wouldn’t be a good fit due to the stresses and realities of the position.
On August 8, Veronese got a letter from Lucasfilm confirming the end of her employment. By the end of the month, Patel had hired someone else, and Veronese had filed a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing. The following April, Veronese sued.
An 11-day trial was held in April, 2010. The jury found for Veronese on three of her claims — pregnancy discrimination, failure to prevent discrimination and wrongful termination in violation of public policy. She was awarded $113,830, but then also got $1.157,411 in attorneys fees.
Lucasfilm appealed the verdict. The company was upset that at the trial, the judge didn’t issue this jury instruction:
“You may not find that Lucasfilm discriminated or retaliated against Julie Gilman Veronese based upon a blelief 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.”
Reviewing the failure to issue the instruction, a three-judge panel at California’s First Appellate District says it was a “prejudicial error.”
In the ruling, the appellate court emphasizes that an employer has the right to change an employee’s duties, refuse to assign a particular job, or even to discharge an employee absent intentional discrimination. Writing for the majority, Judge James Richman says the judge needed to tell the jury about the allowance of a “business judgment,” among other determined jury instruction errors.
The case has now been remanded for a retrial. Veronese’s attorney is reportedly considering appealing to the California Supreme Court.
Lucasfilm has issued a statement, “Lucasfilm is committed to equal employment opportunity and has a long track record of providing a supportive work environment free of discrimination.”
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @eriqgardner
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