Victory couldn’t taste sweeter for Tara Germain.
In April 2007, the Suffolk County Parks Police Officer informed her superiors she was pregnant and sought light-duty assignments. Her request, accompanied by a doctor’s note, was denied. So was an offer from her husband, also a county police officer, to transfer some of his sick leave to her. Ditto for a potential promotion. Germain consequently spent 184 days on unpaid leave. The experience “sucked the joy right out of me,” she told the Press [“Fight For The Right,” April 23, 2009]. “I had a very hard time being happy about the pregnancy.”
Now, Germain has gotten some of that lost happiness back. A federal jury delivered a unanimous verdict July 6 at the U.S. courthouse in Central Islip finding that the county discriminated and retaliated against the 37-year-old mother.
“Definitely I feel vindicated that it’s settled and they’ll have to change their policy, so other females aren’t going to have to go through the same thing,” she says. “I lost certain joys of being pregnant, but now I feel like I’ve gained something back.”
The county and Germain’s attorneys—Janice Goodman of Manhattan, and Gillian Thomas of Legal Momentum, formerly the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund—will now be working with a judge to determine the exact amount of back wages and other lost job benefits owed in reparation. In addition, the judge will issue a ruling mandating the county parks police department to change its policy toward pregnant officers.
The jury rejected a claim that Germain had been discriminated against when passed over for a promotion to sergeant. Suffolk County Attorney Christine Malafi responded to the verdict in an e-mailed statement:
“We understand the jury’s verdict to afford protections to pregnant officers, but we do not wish this to be a precedent for others seeking light-duty status.”
Goodman believes the jury’s findings are important for two main reasons: Not just its direct ramifications in Suffolk, but its potential impact on other similar cases across the nation.
“One, it’s time for Suffolk County to finally understand that they must change their policy regarding police officers, to allow women to be mothers and police officers at the same time. And two, that it’s significant on a national level, because there are many cases such as this percolating around the country.”
Goodman adds that special attention should be paid to the jury’s finding of retaliation, a charge proven, she says, with the help of a rare “smoking gun”—a July 2007 letter sent from Suffolk County Labor Relations Director Jeffrey Tempera to Germain’s husband denying his transference of sick leave to his wife, but adding that things could be different if she dropped the suit. Goodman says it’s only the second time in 35 years that she’d had such a weapon in court.
“Regrettably, I am unable to grant your request,” wrote Tempera. “If, however, you and your wife decide to terminate any pending legal proceedings and sign the applicable general release forms, I would contact the various parties involved and attempt to accommodate your request,” it continues.
Federal law protects a person making a complaint of discrimination just as much as it protects someone from being discriminated against, explains Thomas. The employer, therefore, is bound by federal law not to take adverse action against that person.
“It’s really great that the jury saw that [the letter] for what it was, which was an employer blatantly refusing to give a job benefit, namely the nine more months of pay that she could have gotten by virtue of her husband’s transfer of his time,” says Thomas. “She was deprived of that by the county in retaliation for having raised this pregnancy claim and the jury saw that for what it was.”
When the jury issued its verdict, Germain says some of its female members openly questioned the pregnancy policies at their own jobs, wondering if they were protected from similar discriminatory practices at their respective workplaces. It was a moment that, along with calls Germain says she’s received from female coworkers thanking her for sticking it out and fighting, helped her realize that the long, tough road she took in challenging something she felt was unjust was well worth it.
Germain credits her husband for getting her through it all—there was a time, she admits, when she was ready to throw in the towel—and says she did it all for her daughter, now 19 months old.
“I came home last night and I gave my daughter a big hug,” she tells the Press. “I think it’s going to be a good story for my daughter. I said to her last night…this was all because of you.”