Transgender man files pregnancy discrimination suit against Amazon
A transgender man in New Jersey is suing Amazon, claiming he was harassed and denied a promotion with the online giant after telling his boss he was pregnant.
Shaun Simmons claims he told supervisor Mike Menno about his pregnancy in June 2019. Menno then told another supervisor, Tyler Houpt, and word spread through the Princeton fulfillment center, according to a federal lawsuit, which was filed Monday.
Simmons said he was soon harassed by other employees at the warehouse, including in the men’s bathroom, where one worker asked, “Aren’t you pregnant?”
Menno and Houpt also allegedly began criticizing Simmons’ work performance in an attempt to get him demoted.
After Simmons complained to human resources, he was placed on paid leave, according to the suit.
When he returned from leave, Simmons says he was demoted to item picker, which required him to lift “large bags of dog food and other heavy items,” the New Jersey Law Journal reports.
Simmons told human resources lifting such weight in his condition was causing abdominal pain. He was placed on paid leave again in July and told to furnish a doctor’s note for any pregnancy-related accommodations.
He claims he provided the required documentation but was denied an accommodation.
“Amazon has a policy and practice of discriminating against individuals because of their disability and/or pregnancy, failing to provide employees with accommodations, and retaliating against employees for requesting an accommodation,” his suit reads, “which is demonstrated by the dozens of lawsuits filed against Amazon in the past six years in the state of New Jersey alone.”
Last May, a CNET investigation found at least seven lawsuits filed by women in California, Pennsylvania and New Jersey claiming they were fired by Amazon after disclosing their pregnancy.
Simmons also alleges an offer of a promotion at another warehouse, away from his harassers, was rescinded last September and that he was placed on unpaid leave the same month pending the birth of his child.
He is claiming harassment based on gender and on pregnancy under New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination. He is also alleging pregnancy discrimination, failure to accommodate and workplace retaliation.
In addition to Amazon, Simmons has named Menno and Houpt in his suit, which seeks reinstatement of his job with back pay, as well as legal fees, restoration of lost benefits and punitive damages.
The case was originally filed in Mercer County Superior Court but was moved to the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey in Trenton on Monday after a request from Amazon’s lawyers, according to New Jersey Law Journal.
Greg Nevins, senior counsel for Lambda Legal and director of its Employment Fairness Project, says it’s not clear why the case was moved to federal court, since Simmons didn’t invoke Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
But, he told NBC News, “federal courts are not the most hospitable places” for plaintiffs when it comes to workplace discrimination cases.
Kevin Costello, a partner at Costello & Mains, the firm representing Simmons, said he couldn’t discuss the suit. But he told NBC News the issues it raises “are critically important for us.”
“We’re proud to be advocating in this case and we look forward to the litigation process and putting this before the jury.”
Attorneys for Menno and Houpt did not reply to a request for comment.
In a statement to NBC News, Amazon said it was unable to comment on pending litigation but that it does not tolerate discriminatory harassment “of any kind. “We have been, and continue to be, committed to accommodating all employees to perform their duties in a safe and inclusive workplace,” a company spokesperson said.
The online retailer continually receives perfect scores on the Human Rights Campaign’s corporate equality index, which rates companies on LGBTQ-inclusive policies, practices and benefits.
Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos received HRC’s Equality Award in 2017.
In 2019, the company settled out of court with a transgender woman and her husband, who claimed they suffered “cruel and persistent” harassment and threats of violence while working at an Amazon facility in Kentucky.
Allegra Schawe-Lane and Dane Lane also filed a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which said they had grounds for a lawsuit.
Simmons’ case is rare in that it incorporates claims of both anti-transgender bias and pregnancy discrimination.
In June, the Supreme Court handed transgender Americans a workplace victory with Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, which determined that discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity are prohibited under Title VII’s ban on workplace sex discrimination.
One of three suits involved in that case was brought by Aimee Stephens, a transgender woman who worked as a funeral director in Livonia, Michigan. Stephens, who died before her case was decided earlier this year, had worked at Harris Funeral Homes for six years and claimed she was fired two weeks after telling her supervisors she was transitioning.
“It is impossible to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating … based on sex,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion. In an amicus brief, the Trump administration argued that transgender employees like Stephens were not protected by federal civil rights laws.
New Jersey, where Simmons lives and works, is one of 22 states with laws explicitly prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, according to the Movement Advancement Project. These laws, while not as crucial as they were before the Bostock decision, are still relevant, according to Nevins.
“Title VII applies only if there are 15 or more employees,” he said of the statute at the heart of the Bostock case. “The overwhelming majority of state statutes set a lower number, so more LGBT workers are protected.”
Nevins also said federal judges typically make it more difficult for employment discrimination plaintiffs to “survive summary judgment than other plaintiffs,” so being able to “proceed under state law in state court can provide a fairer forum.”
According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, more than three-quarters of transgender Americans have faced workplace discrimination and more than 1 in 4 have lost a job due to bias.