Lawsuit on Board

When Michelle Bailey got pregnant two years ago, she was thrilled. Newly married, making good money at a company that had named her "Employee of the Year" just months before, she was living in a brand-new home in a family-friendly subdivision in Gilbert.

But she was reluctant to tell her bosses at AutoNation in Tempe the news.

As the only woman in the service department -- a traditionally male-dominated profession -- she had fielded comments about not being up to the job because of her gender. She believed she had proven her doubters wrong, working extra hours and garnering high customer service ratings from her clients.

But still she worried. She had seen a pregnant receptionist, whom her superiors had allegedly called "visually unpleasant," reassigned to a filing room once her pregnancy began to show. (Another former employee says in an affidavit that when she told her boss she was trying to get pregnant, she was advised not to because pregnant women were "ugly and fat.")

Two weeks after Bailey told her male boss she was pregnant, she was fired.

Now, armed with an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruling that she was the victim of pregnancy discrimination, Bailey is suing AutoNation Incorporated -- the largest auto retailer in the United States.

"I'm not looking to get rich," says Bailey, 32. "I just want to pay off my bills and avoid bankruptcy."

Bailey says she also wants other women to be aware of what the law says about discrimination on the basis of pregnancy. Across the country, there is a growing awareness about sexual discrimination and harassment, she believes, but not an understanding that federal law specifically prohibits discriminating against a woman because of pregnancy.

In the EEOC report on Bailey's charge, AutoNation denies that it discriminated against her.

Oscar Suris, spokesman for the Florida-based company, says he can't comment further because he has not seen Bailey's lawsuit or her specific allegations.

Bailey started at the now-closed facility at Interstate 10 and Ray Road before it opened in January 1997. Her first job was as a cashier, but in a few months, she was promoted to assistant service manager. Ironically, she replaced a fired employee who the EEOC alleges in a pending federal lawsuit was the victim of religious discrimination by AutoNation.

The EEOC says it found no evidence that Bailey's work performance was ever questioned. Yet she was fired in September 1998. Bailey says when she demanded a reason, her boss said she didn't fit the "image" of the company and scribbled some phrases on her pink slip. The document says she wasn't "flowing" [sic] company policies and indicates Bailey had a poor performance record. In notations that mystify Bailey, her boss also underlined "destruction of company property" and "fighting on company property" on the back of her notice.

The day Bailey was fired, documents show, she was replaced by a man.

Bailey says she was so shocked she at first didn't fight the dismissal. She spent her time looking for work. At a jobs fair and other interviews, she tried to hide her expanding stomach. But she continued to be rejected by potential employers, so Bailey decided to give up the job search until after the baby was born.

Instead of the $50,000-a-year salary she'd been earning at AutoNation, she began collecting $200 a week in unemployment.

"I can't even describe what that year was like," she says.

Bailey says the stress and financial strain that resulted from her firing nearly cost her her marriage and her home.

Two months after she was fired, Bailey's grandparents urged her to go to the EEOC.

"They were just after me every day, saying what had happened was wrong and illegal," she says.

Bailey went to the local EEOC office in February 1999 and filled out a one-page report, alleging she had been fired because of her pregnancy. She was told the office would investigate the complaint and let her know the outcome.

Meanwhile, her daughter Sydney, a healthy, happy girl, was born in April 1999.

Bailey resumed her job search when the baby was eight weeks old. She believes her chances of getting a position similar to the one she'd held at AutoNation were hurt by AutoNation's strong presence in the local market. AutoNation owns 13 dealerships in the Valley, including all the Brown & Brown, Lou Grubb and Pitre facilities, Tempe Toyota, Arrowhead Chevrolet and AutoMart Superstore in Chandler. Nationally, it is a $20 billion company that two years ago was called the fastest growing in the country and the most admired in the auto industry by Fortune magazine.

In November 1999, Bailey was hired by a metals company in a receptionist position that paid $500 a week. She has been promoted to an accounts receivable position.

Last September, a year after she was let go, the EEOC found "reasonable cause" that she was fired because she was pregnant. It was a vindication for Bailey, and a rare finding. Across the country, pregnancy discrimination charges number about 4,000 a year, only 5 percent of complaints to the EEOC, statistics over the past five years show. And of those, only about 4 percent are upheld by the EEOC.

Susan Grace of the Phoenix EEOC office says pregnancy discrimination cases are rare here, too, making up a small percentage of the 2,400 complaints filed annually. Exact numbers were not available.

The EEOC tried to negotiate a resolution with AutoNation, but Bailey says she wanted $300,000 in damages and AutoNation offered only $7,000 tops.

Last month, Bailey, represented by Tempe attorney Francis Fanning, filed a lawsuit seeking unspecified damages in federal court.

Fanning, who specializes in employment-law cases, says pregnancy discrimination cases are rare, but are more common among male-dominated professions.

"A lot of employers just don't know the law," he says.

Bailey says she and her husband hope to have another child. The next time she gets pregnant, she says, she won't feel any apprehension announcing the news.

"I'm not going to be scared anymore," she says, "because I know I'm in the right."

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Laura Laughlin
Contact: Laura Laughlin