In late 2014, a federal jury in California awarded nearly $186 million in punitive damages to a former Autozone (AZO) female employee after ruling that the retailer mistreated her based on gender, demoted her after learning she was pregnant and subsequently fired her.
Not surprisingly, employers across the country stood up and took notice of the blockbuster award. Yet the case was just the tip of a fast-growing iceberg.
Last week, the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California released a study finding that the number of lawsuits brought by employees claiming discrimination related to pregnancy or providing care for family members more than tripled between 2006 and 2015.
What's more, employees won 67 percent of the "family-responsibility discrimination" cases that went to trial, according to the study, which is based on an analysis of 4,400 such cases.
Workers who prevailed collectively cost employers a bundle. They were awarded nearly $500 million in verdicts and settlements, more than double the amount for the previous decade. And that figure doesn't include confidential settlement agreements.
What's fueling this surge in litigation?
For starters, American employees are shouldering a greater amount of responsibility when it comes to caring for family members, including disabled relatives and aging parents, and that has led to tension in the workplace, explained Cynthia Thomas Calvert, senior adviser to the Center for WorkLife Law.
Some 44 million adults provide unpaid care to other adults or children with special needs, according to the study, which cites data from 2014. Sixty percent of those caregivers are employed. Nearly a quarter of them are millennials, and 40 percent are male.
Most of the lawsuits analyzed by the Center for WorkLife Law were related to pregnancy or maternity leave. But paternity leave, adoption and care for sick children also triggered lawsuits, as did complaints related to accommodations for women who are breastfeeding.
Eldercare is also becoming a major source of workplace tension. Cases involving employees who alleged discrimination because of their responsibilities related to caring for sick or aging parents have surged by 650 percent during the past decade, according to the study. Such cases are expected to keep growing in number as the U.S. population ages.
"Recent studies and Census reports demonstrate that there are groups of employees who provide increasing amounts of family care, and that's creating a clash in the workplace," said Calvert, explaining the study's findings.
No federal law specifically prohibits discrimination against caregivers, but companies that make employment decisions based on bias toward workers with family responsibilities may be in violation of existing laws, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993.
The Affordable Care Act of 2010 protects mothers who are breastfeeding by requiring employers to provide "reasonable break time" and space (other than bathrooms) for women to pump breast milk at work.
Another federal law protects pregnant workers. Under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, employers must treat "women affected by pregnancy," childbirth or related medical conditions the same as "other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work."
In addition, many states and cities have passed laws making it illegal to discriminate against employees on the basis of family responsibilities. Some of these laws don't have caps on damages and allow plaintiffs who prevail to recover attorneys' fees, said Calvert.
"We should start seeing some really big verdicts" because of the new legal protections in New York City, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and other places, added Calvert.
Employers, she noted, can take specific steps to make themselves less vulnerable to lawsuits involving caregiver discrimination.
They can, for instance, train supervisors so that managers have a better sense of what constitutes discrimination against family responsibilities and how to reduce it, adopt written policies against such discrimination and institute effective complaint procedures for workers.
Companies, said Calvert, might also want to consider creating work-coverage plans aimed at ensuring that productivity doesn't suffer as a result of employee leaves. Such plans would also help to reduce the stigma associated with absences for family care.