A former UCLA assistant dean who sued the university and the University of California Board of Regents, alleging she was fired in 2019 for getting pregnant and taking maternity leave, can take her case to trial, a judge has ruled.
However, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Curtis A. Kin pared some of the claims in plaintiff Margaret Purnell’s case after a hearing on Tuesday, during which defense attorneys had requested dismissal of the entire complaint.
Kin ruled that Purnell can proceed with her causes of action for pregnancy discrimination, harassment, retaliation and failure to prevent discrimination, harassment and retaliation.
The judge noted that Assistant Vice Provost Sam Bersola allegedly compared caring for a sick child to looking after a sick dog.
” A reasonable juror could find that Bersola trivializes childcare responsibilities,” the judge wrote.
Bersola also allegedly made biased comments to Purnell due to her pregnancy, questioning her need to miss some events that were scheduled close to her delivery date and asking her, “Aren’t you worried that your team will find it difficult to cover those events without you?” Kin wrote.
Bersola also questioned Purnell’s desire to leave one day near lunch time due to a pregnancy-related illness and asked her to wait until after a 4 p.m. meeting, Kin wrote.
The judge dismissed the plaintiff’s claims for disability discrimination, failure to provide reasonable accommodation, failure to engage in the interactive process, violation of pregnancy disability leave law and violation of the California Family Rights Act.
The suit, filed in April 2020, states that Purnell was hired in 2011 at UC Riverside and spent seven years there before transferring to UCLA as an assistant dean in the graduate division in 2018.
Purnell says she informed UCLA management in January 2019 that she was expecting, that her baby was due at the end of May of that year and that her doctors told her she had a high-risk pregnancy.
In March 2019, Purnell left work early due to a pregnancy-related illness, but was told by her supervisor before she departed that she would have to reschedule her meetings, according to her court papers. That same month, Purnell’s supervisor, aware the plaintiff had a risky pregnancy, assigned her work that required 12 straight days of travel, her suit alleges.
Purnell maintains that when she told her boss during a meeting that she would need a day off after working that many days straight due to her pregnancy and medical condition, he replied that she could ask for it, but it would “not be automatically approved.”
The supervisor then summoned a human resources representative into the meeting and “began attacking her performance, saying that it was below average…” according to the suit, which alleges the boss also told Purnell she was “rude to staff and made them feel humiliated and intimidated.”
Additionally, the supervisor criticized Purnell’s management style and told her that she was taking too much time off, the suit alleges. When Purnell repeated that she could not work 12 or more days straight without a break, her supervisor “appeared annoyed and told plaintiff that if he could work that many days straight, so could she,” according to the suit.
When Purnell asked her boss if he would approve her taking a day off after working the assigned travel schedule if UCLA’s policy allowed for it, he replied, “In light of all the leave you will be taking coming up, I don’t think it is wise to be taking so much time off right now,” the suit states.
Purnell says she traveled to San Francisco in April 2019 for training and received a notification that she was being placed on administrative leave pending an investigation. Later that month, Purnell says, she contacted human resources to discuss her maternity leave and was told they could not help her.
Purnell subsequently went on pregnancy disability leave and UCLA offered to let her resign, “indicating that she would otherwise be fired,” according to her court papers.
Purnell had her baby on May 31, 2019, and was told by UCLA less than three months later that the university intended to fire her, saying she had bullied her staff, the suit alleges.
Purnell says she challenged the allegations and gave her side during a hearing, but she received official notice of her firing in October 2019.