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Federal Judge Rules Dads Can Be Fired After Taking Paternity Leave

After months of harassment as an expectant father, a Disney streaming employee was fired after taking two weeks off for the birth of his child.

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Oct 20 2020, 11:26 AM

A judge sided with Disney in a case brought by a former employee who said he was harassed by his coworkers when they found out his wife was pregnant and fired shortly after returning from two weeks of paternity leave.

Steven Van Soeren was a product designer at Disney Streaming Services, the division of the company that handles tech for streaming services including Disney+ and ESPN+. He says that a “pattern and practice of discrimination” began prior to his wife’s pregnancy and included being paid less than he was promised, insults from multiple coworkers, and his home computer being hacked.

Unfortunately for Van Soeren, U.S. District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald, Clinton appointee, agreed with Disney, which argued that pregnancy discrimination laws like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act “only provide protection to a pregnant employee.”

So if Van Soeren himself had been pregnant he would have had the standing to sue and, considering Buchwald writes that she “accepts the truth of the pleaded facts,” he likely would have won. But the familial status of being a new parent is not among the classes protected by Title VII; being a pregnant person, rooted as it is in biological sex, is.

Buchwald dismissed his claim under the New York City Human Rights Law on the same grounds. She also found against him on his Family and Medical Leave Act claim because he was able to take the paternity leave that law guarantees “without incident.”

It’s an unfortunate outcome for Van Soeren, and a sign that lawmakers need to consider legislation to protect soon-to-be-dads from workplace discrimination for their sake and the sake of their growing families. The ruling could have a chilling effect on how dads chose, or choose not to, take parental leave, due to the fact that they could legally be fired for taking a benefit offered to them by their employer, according to this ruling.

Van Soeren figured out the hacking was happening when the insults he faced at work began to reference things he talked about at home or viewed on his home computer, including the fact that his wife was pregnant. He hadn’t yet disclosed this information in the office. His boss told him that he “shouldn’t have a kid” and told another coworker “I don’t know why he decided to have a kid.” Van Soeren was also grilled about why he was having a child and, in a particularly memorable incident, doused in baby powder.

Van Soeren said that HR was “distant” and “disinterested” when he reported these incidences and told him he could resign. He didn’t and was terminated without cause or severance after taking his paternity leave and returning to work.