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Former Cal Poly employee sues university for being terminated while she was pregnant

Cal Poly.
Cal Poly. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

A former human resources employee at Cal Poly has sued the university, alleging that her September termination was discrimination on the basis of her pregnancy, sex and medical condition. However, the university contends the woman was let go because of “documented performance issues.”

The lawsuit, filed March 28 in San Luis Obispo Superior Court, names Sarah Lalou Lessing as the plaintiff, represented by Santa Barbara-based attorney Julian Alwill. In addition to the university, Samson P. Blackwell, Cal Poly talent acquisition and recruitment director, also is named as a defendant. The complaint alleges Blackwell was Lessing’s direct supervisor.

Lessing’s complaint states that she started her job as an administrative support coordinator in Cal Poly’s Human Resources Department on April 11, 2016. Five months later, in September, she discovered she was pregnant.

On Sept. 26, “(Lessing) became ill during working hours … and left early with the permission of Blackwell,” according to the complaint.

The next day, Lessing allegedly informed her department “of her need for a one-month leave as a result of complications related to her pregnancy.”

She alleges that Cal Poly human resources informed Blackwell that her leave was protected under the California Pregnancy Disability Leave law. That law states that it is illegal for an employer to fire a woman because she is pregnant or taking pregnancy disability leave.

“However, (pregnancy disability leave) does not protect you from employment actions not related to your pregnancy, such as layoffs,” according to the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing website.

Lessing’s complaint states that in addition to notifying HR, she directly called and also emailed Blackwell to inform him she was beginning her medical leave. She stated in her complaint that her leave was approved by her employer after she submitted the necessary documentation.

On Oct. 5, eight days after beginning her medical leave, Lessing stated that she received a letter that she “was not being retained during her probationary period” and that her termination was retroactive to Sept. 30.

At question is the nature of Lessing’s termination. Though state law forbids termination because of pregnancy or pregnancy disability leave, it does not prevent an employer from terminating based on other causes.

Cal Poly’s policy, drawn from the broader California State University system, states that to qualify for pregnancy disability leave, a person must be employed within the CSU or the state “for at least one academic year or 12 months … preceding the request. …”

Alwill said in a phone interview that the university had no apparent reason for letting Lessing go. In June 2016, the complaint states that Blackwell praised Lessing as “an exceptional individual” that he was “honored to have” on staff.

“If she had had 10 write-ups and she was a problem employee, OK maybe,” Alwill said. “Something smells here.”

Alwill said his case will rest on the “temporal proximity” of Lessing’s termination just days after she went on pregnancy disability leave. As this case is civil and not criminal, the burden of proof is lower.

In an email statement, Cal Poly spokesman Matt Lazier wrote, “The university has yet to be served with the lawsuit in question, so we can’t address the specifics of it. What we can say is Sarah Lessing was a probationary employee who was non-retained because of documented performance issues.”

Lessing has sued the university for compensatory damages, attorney fees and the costs of the suit. Cal Poly has until April 28 to file a response to the complaint in court or request an extension.

Andrew Sheeler: 805-781-7929, @andrewsheeler

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