Disney Argues Spouses Aren't Protected Under Pregnancy Discrimination Laws

In response to a lawsuit from a former worker in its streaming division, Disney tackles Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

Thanks to the streaming age and an unusual lawsuit from a former Disney employee, a New York federal judge may soon take a crack at clarifying whether pregnancy discrimination laws cover just those individuals carrying a baby — or their spouses, too.

Steven Van Soeren worked for Disney Streaming Service, formerly known as BAMtech, for nearly three years as a product designer. In a complaint filed in November, he alleges being terminated shortly after taking two weeks of paternity leave. Adding some complexity to this situation, Van Soeren says that some of the alleged mistreatment he suffered occurred before he had told anyone at work that his wife was pregnant. Instead, he asserts that his computer was hacked, and his spying superiors began referencing personal matters including the wisdom of having a child in conversations with him. 

On Friday, Disney submitted a motion to dismiss the suit with the argument that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act as well as New York State Human Rights Law "only provide protection to a pregnant employee, not to an employee whose spouse is pregnant."

Disney's contention came before today's blockbuster decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that Title VII protects gay and transgender workers from discrimination.

Title VII is intended to stop employment discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex and religion. The prohibition on sex discrimination includes pregnancy, and if that wasn't already clear when it was enacted in the 1960s, Congress amended the law to specifically prevent pregnancy discrimination in 1978.

In the Supreme Court's majority opinion today in Bostock v. Clayton County, Justice Neal Gorsuch writes, "It doesn't matter if other factors besides the plaintiff's sex contributed to the decision. And it doesn't matter if the employer treated women as a group the same when compared to men as a group. If the employer intentionally relies in part on an individual employee's sex when deciding to discharge the employee — put differently, if changing the employee's sex would have yielded a different choice by the employer — a statutory violation has occurred."

Surely, there will be many follow-up controversies as well as attempts to square Bostock with other situations. The scope of pregnancy discrimination may eventually trigger high-court review as well.

In the meantime, Disney argues that Van Soeren's discrimination suit fails because he doesn't fall within a protected class and that he also can't sustain a claim based on his sex and his wife's pregnancy.

"First, the Complaint does not contain a single specific factual allegation that a similarly situated female was treated more favorably than the Plaintiff," argues Disney's lawyer Helene Hechtkopf, later shrugging off some of the comments made by plaintiff's former colleagues as an insufficient basis of discrimination. 

Read the full memorandum supporting dismissal here.