Judge Rules Disney Free to Fire Employee Who Took Paternity Leave Because His Wife, Not Him, Was Pregnant

Judge Rules Disney Free to Fire Employee Who Took Paternity Leave Because His Wife, Not Him, Was Pregnant
Image:Robyn Beck (Getty Images)

A U.S. District Judge has ruled that a former Disney Streaming Service employee “isn’t a member of a protected class” in a lawsuit claiming the employee was fired after the company possibly found out his wife was pregnant by hacking into his personal emails and phone. Obviously, this is not normal workplace behavior, but apparently does not fall under the umbrella of pregnancy discrimination law.

In November 2019, Steven Van Soeren filed a lawsuit claiming that he was fired after three years with Disney Streaming Service (formerly known as BAMtech) just after taking two weeks of paternity leave. Prior to his leave, Soeren claims that co-workers and a superior harassed him about his wife’s pregnancy. In a complaint, he says that co-workers seemed to have knowledge of his internet searches and conversations he’d had off the clock in his own home, likely gleaned from hacking into his private email and phone, according to The Hollywood Reporter:

“‘By way of example, Plaintiff was expecting a child but had not disclosed that information to anyone at the Company’ states the complaint, which was filed in New York federal court. ‘Yet, Mr. McConnell [Soeren’s supervisor], in an unrelated conversation, blurted out to Plaintiff, ‘maybe you shouldn’t have a kid.’ Likewise, Mr. Paglia [a co-worker] sent Plaintiff an unsolicited video of children developing in utero. The same sentiments were harbored by Jennifer Kaufmann, Associate Director of UX & Design, who asked if Plaintiff had a good reason for having a child. Mr. McConnell also stated, within hearing distance of Plaintiff, ‘I don’t know why he [Plaintiff] decided to have a kid. At 30 my wife and I thought about it but decided that we’d wait until 40.’”

Soeren says his complaints to HR went ignored and that he was terminated shortly after returning from his paternity leave, despite positive performance reviews and no warnings about job performance from superiors at the company. However, U.S. District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald found that pregnancy discrimination, illegal under Title VII, “does not protect an employee whose spouse was pregnant.”

While it may be the case that Soeren does have some sort of grounds for a lawsuit, Judge Buchwald’s ruling means that he does not have grounds to argue pregnancy discrimination under Title VII, since his was not the body harboring the fetus. It does seem odd that discrimination against an employee gleaned by snooping on them outside the office is not wholly illegal across the board regardless of pregnancy status.

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