Natalie Jesionka is the Associate Director of the Division of Global Affairs at Rutgers University Newark. A leader and champion of Rutgers since 2004, when she first enrolled as a student at the university, she has gone on to a decorated and successful career in academia, focusing her talents on researching and combatting the evils of human trafficking. She has served as a lecturer in the Sociology and Women’s Studies Departments at Rutgers and taught courses on human rights, human trafficking and international development. In recent years, she has been a Fulbright scholar, has served on the Board of Directors of Amnesty International USA and was awarded the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans to further her research in counter-trafficking efforts around the world.
Praised by her peers and other faculty, including outstanding performance reviews from her former supervisor, Ms. Jesionka learned of another significant and happy development in her life in the middle of 2018: she was pregnant with her first child. In the fall of 2018, Ms. Jesionka informed her new supervisor, Dr. Gabriella Kütting, and Rutgers’ Human Resources Department that she was pregnant and due to have her baby on February 14, 2019.
In the weeks following this disclosure, Dr. Kütting repeatedly raised Ms. Jesionka’s pregnancy and upcoming maternity leave in discussions with Ms. Jesionka, baselessly questioning Ms. Jesionka’s ability to perform her job and her dedication to the job, and culminating in a December 18, 2018 meeting where Dr. Kütting informed Ms. Jesionka that she would be giving Ms. Jesionka a poor performance review in April, while Ms. Jesionka was scheduled to be on maternity leave.
Dr. Kütting’s repeated enquiries about Ms. Jesionka’s pregnancy and the unusual discussion of an unwarranted, poor performance review to take place five months in the future, prompted Ms. Jesionka to raise concerns of pregnancy discrimination in a complaint with Rutgers’ Office of Employment Equity (OEE) on December 20, 2018.
On January 8, 2019, after receiving no substantive response from OEE, Ms. Jesionka followed up with OEE concerning the status of her complaint and expressed concern that the complaint could lead to retaliation by her supervisor, Dr. Kütting. Later that same day, Ms. Jesionka’s fears were realized, when Dr. Kütting came, unscheduled, to Ms. Jesionka’s office and provided her a termination letter dated that same day. The letter from Dr. Kütting specifically informed Ms. Jesionka that her position was terminated, effective February 6, 2019—less than a week after the commencement of her scheduled maternity leave and only eight days before her due date.
Although Ms. Jesionka was told that her employment was being terminated because her position was being eliminated, Defendant communicated to staff approximately one week later that advertisements for a replacement for Ms. Jesionka would be issued soon.
On February 4, 2019, Ms. Jesionka filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey alleging that Rutgers had unlawfully discriminated against her because she was pregnant and soon to take maternity leave, and had retaliated against her for filing an internal complaint. Rutgers has now stayed the termination of Ms. Jesionka pending an internal investigation.
“Rutgers University has failed to honor the reasonable obligations placed on the University by state and federal law to provide a stable and non-discriminatory workplace for expecting mothers.” said Matthew Handley, Ms. Jesionka’s counsel at Handley Farah & Anderson PLLC. “We have brought this case not only to enforce the rights of Ms. Jesionka, but also to ensure that other Rutgers employees can take the parental leave to which they are entitled without the fear of losing their jobs.”
Ms. Jesionka added, “I have felt privileged to invest my energy, passion, and global expertise into Rutgers University as a student, faculty member, and associate director for almost 15 years. To have my dedication and achievements ignored and set aside merely because I chose to start a family is deeply upsetting and humiliating. Women should not have to choose between a career and a family.”