US court upholds sexual discrimination lawsuit against L&T

A US court has upheld a class claim of sex discrimination filed against Larsen and Toubro Infotech, a subsidiary of Indian conglomerate L&T, by its former employee who has alleged she was fired from her job after she informed the company she was pregnant.

The lawsuit has been brought by New York attorney Krishnan Chittur on behalf of Deepa Shanbhag and 1,500 past and present women employees. In the lawsuit, which seeks USD 20 million in damages, Shanbhag had alleged that L&T Infotech discriminated against its female employees on the basis of sex with respect to job assignment, compensation and created a "hostile and abusive climate" for them.

It alleges that L&T Infotech "discriminated against her and other employees on grounds of sex and pregnancy". It added that the company "unlawfully or discriminatorily terminated employment of pregnant employees on "false pretenses."

Magistrate Judge Patty Shwartz of the District Court in New Jersey allowed the individual claim of intentional sex discrimination, individual and class claims of sex discrimination under New Jersey Law and a class claim of pregnancy discrimination against L&T.

The court also allowed Shanbhag's motion to add Larsen and Toubro Limited as a party to the lawsuit. Shanbhag, a New Jersey resident, has demanded a jury trial in the case.

Chittur said L&T would now have to "answer before a jury for its maltreatment of women, and pay these women compensation for what these women had to suffer." Shanbhag was hired by the New Jersey-headquartered company as an independent contractor in October 2010 for three months.

The lawsuit said L&T, pleased with Shanbhag's performance, had offered her a full-time position. Shanbhag joined the company as a full-time employee in January 2011.

However, Shanbhag informed the company in March that she was pregnant.  A day later and only 38 days after Shanbhag joined as a full-time employee, L&T terminated her employment.

During her employment, Shanbhag alleged in the lawsuit, she was repeatedly subjected to an "unrelenting barrage of sexual harassment" and criticism of other female employees. In one instance, Shanbhag's immediate supervisor had told her she was replacing "a dreadful woman who did not know how to dress."

The court however dismissed Shanbagh's class claims for pregnancy, sex and hostile work environment and claims for breach of contract. The court has given L&T time till March 15 to respond.

The lawsuit states Shanbhag suffered economic loss, was denied employment benefits and suffered "mental anguish, humiliation and emotional distress" due to the company's discriminatory practices.

It says the company should reinstate all those women employees who wish to rejoin and in future should restrain from engaging in any discriminatory practices and customs.

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