A federal court of appeal affirmed an $850,000 verdict that Wayne State University was ordered to pay to a social work masters student after it failed to address pregnancy discrimination she was subjected to while participating in a school-sponsored internship at the Salvation Army. Plaintiff Tina Varlesi’s internship supervisor made discriminatory remarks about her pregnancy and gave her a negative performance evaluation that lead to her receiving a failing grade that obstructed her graduation from Wayne State’s social work program. Varlesi alleged not only direct discrimination on the basis of her pregnancy, but also retaliation for having complained about her supervisor’s conduct to university officials.
In appealing the verdict, Wayne State challenged the award as excessive, as well as some evidentiary rulings by the lower court. The appellate court said that the lower court had not abused its discretion in these matters. Wayne State also complained about instructions that were given to the jury, including an argument that it was insufficient to instruct the jury to find for the plaintiff on her retaliation claim if they found that the institution took adverse action because she complained about pregnancy discrimination. Even though a recent Supreme Court decision held that under Title VII, a retaliation plaintiff must prove that retaliation was the employer’s sole motive (as opposed to a substantial motive, mixed with other considerations), the court ruled that the word “because” in this instruction complied with that requirement, even if we assumed — which the court did not — that Title VII caselaw applies to Title IX on issues of retaliation where the statutes are markedly different.
More broadly, the case confirms Title IX’s application to discrimination based on pregnancy, as well as the responsibility of educational institutions to address sex discrimination when it occurs in the context of an internship that is part of an academic program.