By Aleksandra Syniec, Staff Writer
In 2014, a teacher at the St. Theresa School in Kenilworth, Victoria Crisitello, told her principal that she was pregnant. Only days later, the principal consulted with other clerical and School personnel and decided to fire her for engaging in premarital sex. She sued and after a 6 year court battle won her case.
It was made clear to Crisitello that her work performance was not the basis for her termination-the clear reason was that she was pregnant and unmarried, which the school claimed violated the Church’s ethical standards. The school said that when Crisitello began working at the School in 2011, she signed a form agreeing to conduct herself according to the Catholic Church’s values and teachings. The document prohibited:
Immoral conduct, participation in abortion, committing homicide or euthanasia, possession or distribution of pornographic material, adultery, flagrant promiscuity or illicit co-habitation, abuse of alcohol, drugs, or gambling, theft, fraud, or any other form of misappropriation or misuse of Church funds or property and sexual exploitation or abuse.
The lawsuit was initially dismissed by a trial level judge in the Superior Court in Union County, because it required evidence of “unequal treatment” to prove that discrimination had occurred, and lacking such evidence found in favor of the School. Crisitello appealed and last month, the Appeals Court reversed the decision.
The question was whether a parochial school’s knowledge of the pregnancy of an unmarried lay teacher, who started as a teacher’s aide for toddlers, later taught art, and had no responsibility for religious instruction, can serve as the nondiscriminatory basis for the teacher’s termination for violating the school’s morals code, where the school never made any effort to determine whether any of its employees have violated the school’s prohibition against ‘immoral conduct’ that is allegedly incorporated into each employees’ terms of employment.
In its analysis, the Appeals Court used the McDonnell Douglas “test,” which is the historical legal test for deciding whether discriminatory employment action occurred. In order to have a valid claim under the McDonnell Douglas test, a person claiming discrimination must show the following: (1) that she/he is a member of a protected class; (2) that she/he was performing their job at a level that met the employer’s legitimate expectations; (3) that she/he was terminated; and (4) that the employer sought someone to perform the same work after she/he was terminated.
In this specific case, where Ms. Crisitello was pregnant the following criteria must also be shown: (1) that she was pregnant; (2) that she was qualified for her job; (3) she was subjected to an adverse employment decision; and (4) there is a connection between the pregnancy and the adverse employment decision.
The Appellate Court found that Ms. Crisitello had a prima facie or threshold claim of discrimination. She was in fact pregnant, making her a member of a protected class under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD). She was performing her job at a level that met the School’s expectations. She was terminated soon after she spoke to the principal about her pregnancy, and the school tried to fill her position shortly after that.
After Ms. Crisitello met the four factors of McDonnel Douglass, the School had to then try to show that it had a valid, nondiscriminatory reason for taking adverse action against her. What the Court decided was that even if the School’s policy was valid, it did not take any actions to enforce and evaluate violations of the Catholic tenents that would breach the employee handbook. Instead of building a case against Crisitello, the School based its termination of Crisitello on teacher gossip.
In addition, the School’s handbook does not make premarital sex explicit prohibited conduct. So the Court found that Crisitello’s termination was pretextual, meaning that there was no valid reason for the termination.
Significant in the decision was that knowledge or mere observation of an employee’s pregnancy alone was not a valid reason to detect violations of the School’s policy and to terminate an employee.
In many ways, this case is a triumph for Ms. Crisitello and other women working for religious institutions. This case is also a cautionary tale for religious employers that try to impose a moral code on its employees that disproportionately affects women rather than men. But employees should remember that if the school or institution did equally and uniformly enforce a moral code on its staff, termination for “immoral conduct” could be upheld by a court.
Aleksandra Syniec is a regular contributor to our Blog section. She is a third-year law student at Seton Hall University School of Law and beyond her skill researching and writing about different legal issues, is also knowledgeable in landlord-tenant law and information technology.