Wednesday, June 1, 2005
Court Affirms Dismissal of Job Bias Claim Against Film Director
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
An employee’s suit charging she was terminated due to her pregnancy was properly dismissed because there was no proof her employer knew she was pregnant before deciding to fire her, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday.
A divided panel in Div. Five affirmed Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Susan Bryant-Deason’s rejection of the suit by Anne Trop against Sony Pictures Entertainment, Inc. and Tall Trees Productions, the production company of producer/director Betty Thomas.
Trop was hired under a three-year “first look” agreement requiring Sony Pictures to pay a specific amount per year to Tall Trees for overhead, including the salary of an assistant to Thomas. Thomas turned to directing in the late 1980s after an acting career highlighted by her role as a police officer on the television series “Hill Street Blues.”
Her latest project is a film to be released next year, “John Tucker Must Die,” starring the hip-hop singer Ashanti and “Desperate Housewives” regular Jesse Metcalfe. Trop was hired as Thomas’ assistant in 2001, when she was getting ready to direct “I Spy,” which was released the following year to mixed reviews.
Trop was fired three months after work concluded on the film. She alleged in her complaint — which included causes of action based on the Fair Employment and Housing Act and public policy — that she had been fired on account of her pregnancy, which had been confirmed shortly before she was terminated.
Thomas contended that Trop had been fired for deficient performance, including failing to include correct phone numbers on three messages and putting through a phone call from a studio executive while Thomas was in conference with a writer, when Thomas did not want the writer to know that the executive had called.
In granting summary judgment, Bryant-Deason concluded that Trop was fired because Thomas was dissatisfied with her work performance and that Thomas did not know of the pregnancy until after she decided to fire the plaintiff.
Justice Sandy Kriegler, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the trial judge was correct.
Trop’s evidence, Kriegler explained, established at most that Thomas knew Trop was trying to get pregnant and did not want a pregnant assistant. But that was insufficient to create triable issues in the absence of evidence from which it could at least be inferred that Thomas knew of the pregnancy.
The justice rejected the contention that such knowledge could be inferred based on an incident that occurred at a Christmas party at Thomas’ home, when Trop was playing with the infant daughter of Thomas’ partner, Jenno Topping. In Trop’s version of the incident, Trop said, “It looks like I get to have one of my own,” referring to the baby, to which Thomas responded, “Not while you are working for me.”
The incident, even assuming the accuracy of Trop’s account, does not rise to the level of evidence of discrimination, Kriegler said, because Thomas’ alleged statement “is so ambiguous as to be insufficient, as a matter of law, to establish that Thomas knew Trop was pregnant.”
Having failed to present direct evidence of discrimination, the justice went on to explain, the burden was on the plaintiff to rebut the defense showing that Thomas did not know of the pregnancy and acted from proper motives. This the plaintiff failed to do, Kriegler concluded, citing evidence that Trop had told her co-workers who knew of the pregnancy not to tell Thomas or Topping and that they had honored her request.
Presiding Justice Paul A. Turner concurred in the opinion, while Justice Richard Mosk dissented.
Mosk argued that Trop had presented direct evidence of discrimination based on Thomas’ alleged post-termination statements, including “How could you possibly be my assistant and be pregnant? How did you think that ever was going to work?” and, “it would never happen here,” in response to Trop’s alleged statement that “women get pregnant every day.”
While “Trop’s case may not appear strong,” Mosk argued, “I believe she has submitted enough evidence to have her case tried by a finder of fact.”
The case is Trop v. Sony Pictures Entertainment, Inc., 05 S.O.S. 2591.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company