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A former associate with Dallas’ Jenkens & Gilchrist recently filed a discrimination suit against the firm, alleging it “constructively discharged” her because of her pregnancy � an allegation some lawyers say is on the rise in employment litigation in Texas. In her complaint in Bridges v. Jenkens & Gilchrist, filed March 10 in U.S. District Court in Dallas, Kandice Bridges alleges the firm discriminated against her based on her sex, gender and pregnancy, thereby violating the 14th Amendment and 42 U.S.C. �2000e. Jenkens & Gilchrist vehemently denies the allegations. Bridges alleges that she had outstanding performance evaluations and she was on a “shareholder track” at the firm until she became pregnant with her first child. Because of her pregnancy, she allegedly began experiencing a pattern of discrimination by her supervisors, according to the complaint. Bridges, who joined the firm in 1999 and worked in the Employee Retirement Income Security Act section, alleges that after she became pregnant in March 2002, her supervisors continually berated her for having her “priorities out of order,” insulted her appearance, humiliated her in front of her peers and harassed her about her choice to have children, the implication being that kids would affect her abilities at work. She alleges she was removed as a team leader, told she had a bad attitude and that her heart was not in the right place, and as a result, work would “fall through the cracks” if she remained in that position. In her complaint, Bridges also alleges that early in the week of Nov. 4, 2002, her doctor ordered bed rest for her. When she informed her supervisor that she would have to be on bed rest at the end of the week, the supervisor allegedly responded by assigning her a project that would take at least 50 hours to accomplish. Bridges was concerned she wouldn’t be able to complete it by the end of the week, she alleges, but the supervisor argued that she could accomplish the work while lying on her side in bed. Bridges alleges the firm subsequently accelerated her annual review and she received a “very negative evaluation.” As alleged in her complaint, she was told that if her commitment and dedication did not improve, “she would be under threat of being terminated.” As alleged in her complaint, later on the same day as her evaluation � “in which she endured over 45 minutes of being berated by her supervisor in the presence of a member of Jenkens’ board of directors” � Bridges went into labor and delivered her child five-and-a-half weeks premature. Her child spent two-and-a-half weeks in neonatal intensive care and 14 days in the special care nursery. She alleges the discrimination continued while working at the firm part-time after she returned from a 12-week leave. Bridges left the firm on May 23, 2003, because of the “intolerable” conditions at Jenkens, she alleges. She filed a “charge of discrimination” against Jenkens with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and Bridges received the right to sue from the EEOC on Dec. 17, 2003. However, the EEOC was “unable to conclude that the information obtained establishes violations of the statutes” in Bridges’ complaint. Work Pressure “Kandice never expected special treatment; she was well aware of the demands of working for a big law firm,” says Bridges’ lawyer, Rhonda Cates. “But it was the fact that they singled her out for worse treatment is the issue,” Cates alleges. Bridges declines to comment. But Pat Mitchell, a Jenkens shareholder and member of the firm’s board of directors, says the firm took pains to accommodate Bridges during her pregnancy and allowed flexibility in her work schedule when she returned from maternity leave. “I can tell you that � line by line � the issues in that complaint we have addressed with the people involved,” Mitchell says. “And I am convinced that the statements lodged in her complaint are meritless.” “I think that it’s clear from Kandice’s complaint that she reacted unfavorably to a mixed review based on four separate evaluations by lawyers in her section,” Mitchell says. “We don’t see that a mixed review is anything close to a constructive termination.” Mitchell says the firm was surprised when Bridges decided to leave for another job and had no clue that she was unhappy. Bridges now works as a manager for an accounting firm, says Cates, a partner in Dallas’ Lyon, Gorsky, Baskett, Haring, Gilbert & Cates. “Kandice had a lot of friends here. And you would have had torches lit if things like that happened on a floor in this law firm,” Mitchell says. Forty-two percent of the associates at Jenkens are female many of whom have left on maternity leave and have returned without problems or complaints, Mitchell says. “We do not have discrimination claims. We have had one discrimination claim since 1986,” Mitchell says. “This is not part of the culture here. The environmental issues are very important to us.” Jenkens & Gilchrist has a policy in place that allows full-time employees up to 90 days of paid maternity leave, with the possibility of additional unpaid leave if necessary, and a reduced work schedule if requested, according to the firm’s employee handbook. On the Rise Kendra Karlock, who represents professional women in employment cases, says Bridges is not alone in alleging that a firm discriminated against her after she became pregnant. “I’ve gotten more calls on it” recently, says Karlock, a Dallas solo. Pregnancy discrimination can take many forms at firms, she says. “The way I’ve seen them discriminate is to load them down with work. I’ve also seen them not give them work,” Karlock says. “Or assume that they can’t travel.” “It’s a sad fact: There are those people who think being a mother is incompatible with the practice of law,” Karlock says. Ken Molberg, president of the Texas Employment Lawyers Association and a partner in Dallas’ Wilson, Williams & Molberg, also has noticed a rise in pregnancy discrimination claims. The uptick could have something to with a business trend in which employers try to get by with fewer employees, he says. “A lot of employers who are trying to employ fewer people for the same amount of work don’t like leave,” Molberg says. “Employees have had it tough, and it’s going to get tougher.” Jennifer Kaplan, an EEOC spokeswoman, says pregnancy discrimination claims are on the rise in Texas. For fiscal year 2001, there were 315 pregnancy discrimination claims filed with the EEOC in the state, 229 of those were wrongful-discharge complaints. In fiscal year 2003, that number jumped to 407 pregnancy discrimination claims; 308 of those were wrongful-discharge complaints. When Cindy Ohlenforst joined Dallas’ Hughes & Luce in 1980, few firms even had maternity leave policies because so few female attorneys worked at large Texas firms. Now that has changed, she says. Ohlenforst had one child when she joined the firm and two more afterward. She says she’s never had a problem with the firm over maternity leave. It takes teamwork at a firm to make sure projects get completed, clients are satisfied, and lawyers and their co-workers are happy when an attorney goes on maternity leave, Ohlenforst says. “There just has to be intense cooperation on both sides. If I’m going to be on bed rest, I’ve got to make sure the project gets done, even if it means handing it off to someone else,” says Ohlenforst, who heads the firm’s tax section. “If I’m on bed rest for maternity leave or if I’m having my appendix out, I’d like to think I could rely on my fellow lawyers to help me out.” Pete Riley, managing partner of Dallas’ Thompson & Knight, says his sense is that most Texas firms have progressive policies when it comes to maternity leave for attorneys. His firm has a 90-day paid maternity leave policy, he says. Unpaid leave is available after that, and part-time employment is available when the lawyer returns to work, Riley says. But a policy is only as good as the people who follow it, Riley says. “Application of the policy is just as important as the policy,” Riley says. “I don’t know that we’ve ever had a problem. Everybody needs to adjust. The lawyer needs to adjust, and sometimes the firm needs to adjust and that’s just part of it.” Bridges likely will have a tough time proving her case at the courthouse, says Michael Maslanka, a partner in and chairman of the labor and employment section at Dallas’ Godwin Gruber. “Constructive discharge is extraordinarily hard to prove. If all she can prove is she believes she was being discriminated against and she resigned, she doesn’t have a case. She loses,” says Maslanka, who represents employers. “She has to prove that circumstances were so egregious and so harsh and so unbearable that no reasonable woman could take it,” Maslanka adds. Yet maternity leave likely will always be an issue in the high-pressure world of firms, Maslanka says. “The legal profession is still trying to figure out how to balance the needs of clients with the . . . lawyers’ needs and the needs of the firm,” Maslanka says. “And it’s a tough balancing act.”

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