A new lawsuit alleges that Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, discriminated against his former deputy chief of staff on the basis of her sex after she became pregnant.
Kristie Small claims in the suit, Small v. Office of Congressman Henry Cuellar, that she began working for Cuellar in June 2018 and received positive feedback from him and his staff. Things changed in August 2018 because Small was pregnant and she emailed Cuellar to request maternity leave under office policy, according to the lawsuit. Cuellar responded that he wanted to talk about a “probation period” he had for Small and new employees, the complaint alleges.
“Cuellar had never mentioned a probation period before he learned about Small’s pregnancy. Contrary to what he said, none of the other employees had been on a probationary period. However, none of those employees were pregnant women,” said the May 6 complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
Cuellar spokeswoman Leslie Martinez wrote in an email that personnel matters are confidential and she couldn’t comment specifically about Small’s allegations.
“The office values its employees and conducts all personnel matters in compliance with the Congressional Accountability Act and applicable House Rules. All actions taken with respect to Ms. Small’s employment were in compliance with the law and House Rules,” she said.
Small’s complaint said she has 14 years of experience working on Capitol Hill, on the staff of lawmakers and a House committee. As Cuellar’s deputy chief of staff, she performed as acting chief of staff because there was a vacancy in the chief of staff position. Small was the congressman’s principal liaison and she supervised employees, reviewed and approved their work, established office policies and procedures, and watched the budget and operations, according to the suit. She’d work 10-hour days to carry her heavy workload and responsibilities. The complaint said Small made significant improvements in the office, which Cuellar knew about because she emailed him her accomplishments at the end of each day. He responded positively to her performance.
Small learned she was pregnant shortly after she started working for Cuellar. The employee handbook promised 12 weeks of paid maternity leave. The handbook didn’t mention a probation period, and none of Small’s colleagues had heard of it. Small, the only pregnant staffer, was the only employee subject to the probation period.
Cuellar raised some “false” criticisms about Small’s work during a September 2018 meeting and he extended her probation period for 30 days. He called her in October 2016 to discuss her performance again, and that’s when Cuellar terminated Small’s employment “for failure to perform during the probationary period,” the complaint alleged.
“Cuellar identified the specific tasks he claimed she failed to complete. However, the reasons Cuellar gave for firing plaintiff were false,” said the complaint.
The impact on Small was devastating, according to the lawsuit. Two weeks after her termination, at 30 weeks pregnant, she had her baby and it was stillborn.
Small is suing for sex and pregnancy discrimination under the Congressional Accountability Act, and seeks to recover damages for lost wages and benefits, mental anguish, pre- and post-judgment interest, attorney fees and $300,000 for pain, suffering and emotional distress.
Read the complaint.