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Pregnancy discrimination suits are on the rise in corporate America, employment attorneys say, particularly among high-level female executives who claim that they are being knocked off the corporate ladder because of maternity issues. In Chicago, a national marketing manager is suing Merisant Worldwide Inc., the maker of Equal sweetener, claiming that the company demoted her and treated her unfairly because of her pregnancy. Babb v. Merisant, No. 06 C 1383 (N.D. Ill.). In New York, a former national sales director for Google Inc. who was pregnant with quadruplets is suing the search engine company, claiming that she was demoted, called a “human relations nightmare” and eventually fired because of her pregnancy. Elwell v. Google, No. 05 CV 6487 (S.D.N.Y.). And in New Jersey, women’s groups have called for legislation to protect the jobs of pregnant employees following a recent state Supreme Court ruling, which found that employers do not have to grant women with high-risk pregnancies more leave time than that allowed to other disabled employees. Gerety v. Atlantic City Hilton Casino Resort, 2005 N.J. Lexis 931. “The kind of cases you’re seeing now are more higher-level executive types, who just like anyone else want to work and have families. They want both,” said attorney Michael Leonard, a partner at Meckler Bulger & Tilson in Chicago who is representing the plaintiff in the Merisant case. Merisant officials were not available for comment. A 31% climb According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), pregnancy discrimination complaints have increased by 31% over the last decade, from 3,385 complaints in 1992 to 4,449 in 2005. During that same time period, prelitigation settlements have tripled, from $3.7 million to $11.6 million. The EEOC also is litigating more pregnancy discrimination complaints, filing 30 such lawsuits in 2005, compared with just six or fewer per year in the mid-1990s. “The increase in pregnancy discrimination charge filings and lawsuits is cause for concern,” said EEOC spokesman David Grinberg. “However, the number of charges and lawsuits filed probably does not reflect the true extent of the problem. Many women-especially professionals-view charge-filing and litigation as a ‘career killer,’ and others are not inclined to fight an organization with a baby on the way.” The EEOC cites a number of reasons for the rise in pregnancy discrimination claims, including more women in the work force, greater awareness of employment rights, and corporate downsizing and employer cutbacks. But lawyers defending businesses in discrimination matters say that most companies are not forcing women to choose between career and family. Instead, they argue, businesses have become increasingly sensitive to such matters, and have enforced policies that protect, not hurt, pregnant employees. One such company is Google, claims Amy Lambert, senior employment counsel for Google who is defending the search giant in a pregnancy discrimination suit. “Neither pregnancy nor maternity leave is considered an impediment to employment or advancement at Google as can be seen by the number of female directors and vice presidents who have had children at various points during their careers at Google,” Lambert said. Google is facing a federal lawsuit in New York in which a woman claims that she was demoted from her position as national sales director and then fired after telling her boss she had medical issues related to her pregnancy with quadruplets. According to court documents, the plaintiff, Christina Elwell, was later rehired but eventually went on disability leave after losing three of the four children. Lambert said the suit has no merits. A federal judge recently ruled that Google and Elwell should go to arbitration rather than trial. Elwell’s lawyer, Ira Gross of Sullivan & Worcester in Boston, did not return calls seeking comment. Employment attorney David Long-Daniels of the Atlanta office of Greenberg Traurig, who in recent years has successfully defended several companies in pregnancy discrimination disputes, noted that most businesses have avoided trial in such cases. “These cases can be extraordinarily dangerous if they make it to a jury,” Long-Daniels said. “It has been my experience that if a case survives summary judgment and makes it to a jury, the chance of success are very high. Accordingly, we are very proactive and defend these cases quite aggressively in order to ensure that do not make it to trial.”

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