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Woman: Protective order led to firing

Sunday, May 20, 2012

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- An Indianapolis woman has reached an informal settlement with Pitney Bowes in a lawsuit alleging she was fired within a month of obtaining a protective order against her abusive boyfriend.

Kristianne Rouster had sued the mail and document-management company in federal court in Indianapolis, alleging she had been fired because Pitney Bowes was concerned her protective order against her boyfriend could bring harm to its employees.

"They said they need to protect their employees," Rouster said of her supervisors. "They said they were scared."

The Indianapolis Star reported on Sunday that Rouster obtained a protective order last fall against her boyfriend, who had beat her and threatened to kill her. The order barred him from contacting her in person, on the phone or by text. Because such orders routinely include the workplace, Rouster told Pitney Bowes, and she was fired within a month.

Her lawsuit, claiming gender discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, alleged that since domestic violence victims are overwhelmingly women, the company's decision hurts women more than men.

As of Saturday, the two sides had reached an informal agreement to give Rouster, 31, a job at another Pitney Bowes location in exchange for dropping her lawsuit.

Rouster's lawyer, Gary Ricks, said he had tried to get Rouster's job back before filing suit, which seeks $100,000 in compensatory damages and $100,000 in punitive damages. He said Rouster, a mother of three, is now homeless.

Pitney Bowes spokesman Matt Broder would not specify why the company changed its position. But he said officials determined "we can bring her back to a location without risk to employees."

"We try to be as supportive as we can to employees in abusive home settings," Broder said.

Lynn Hecht Schafran, senior vice president at Legal Momentum, a New York-based legal defense organization for women and children, said she understands the company's concerns.

"I don't fault the company for being concerned about their workers," she said. "This is a concern for companies everywhere."

Carrie Hyatt Bloomquist, legal director at the Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said Rouster's firing could have a "chilling effect" on other abuse victims. She said it is difficult enough already to persuade them to file protective orders or leave their abusive spouses.

Fifteen states prohibit employers for terminating victims because they took legal action against an abusive spouse. Most of those states require companies to give battered women time off to deal with legal issues or to settle into a new living situation.

Indiana isn't one of them, but is one of only seven states to provide unemployment compensation to women who are forced to quit their jobs because of the threat of domestic violence or stalking.

Indiana allows employers to fire its workers without cause or "at will" unless they have a contract. But "at will" terminations still have to be constitutional.

State Rep. Linda Lawson, D-Hammond, who authored Indiana's unemployment and restraining order bills, said she may introduce legislation that prohibits the firing of domestic violence victims after hearing of Rouster's situation.

"This really amazes me," she said. "She was taking care of herself and doing the right thing by reporting it to her employer. If you are a good employee, why wouldn't you expect that the company would be there for you?"

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