The Couple Fired From A Catholic School Because of Pregnancy Has Lawyered Up
Their representative claims the dual termination is vague and may be a breach of their contract.
Attorney Anthony DiFruscia is hoping that a Catholic school in Lawrence takes a page out of Pope Francis’s book and shows some kindness by clearing the names of two of his clients who were terminated after they revealed they were expecting a child out of wedlock.
“I am hoping that members of the Catholic community understand that [my clients] were planning on getting married anyway, this is not new news. We are going to try and resolve this issue without going to court,” DiFruscia said. But if need be, legal action will take place, he said.
DiFruscia decided to take on the case of Sean Houlihan and Natalie Ferland, two teachers at the Lawrence Catholic Academy fired by the principal after telling the school they were expecting a baby, because he felt it was a “strong case” of wrongful termination.
“These are two nice kids. They are very nice. They are young people that certainly want to have a future. They have decided to take an important step, and that was not to abort the child, and the Catholic Church should be happy that they wanted to keep another human being on the planet,” he said of the couple.
Houlihan and Ferland, who started dating last March, were reportedly told by the school’s principal, Jorge Hernandez, that the termination was due to a breach in the contract they signed with the school at the start of the year.
The couple said they didn’t want to pursue legal action, but wanted to resign instead. The school wouldn’t allow it, however, according to the termination documents obtained by DiFruscia.
Calls to the school made by Boston were not immediately returned.
The Archdiocese of Boston, which oversees the Catholic academy in Lawrence, issued a general statement, but would not talk about this specific case.
“Lawrence Catholic Academy is committed to providing a Catholic faith-based education as part of an exceptional overall academic experience. Our teachers sign an agreement to adhere to the teachings and principles of the Catholic Church, among many other criteria essential for employment,” the statement said. “When that contract is violated it is the school’s responsibility to make a determination as to whether a member of the staff can remain based on the facts of the matter. This is important so as to be consistent in following the school’s responsibility to live by the core principles of a Catholic education.”
When DiFruscia first read about the termination back in early December, he decided he would step in and see if he could rectify the problem at a reduced fee. “The fee situation is secondary to the real issue,” he said. “I think they have a strong case dealing with wrongful discharge. The contract they signed is kind of nebulous as far as I can see.”
He said there are state and federal laws in place to prevent wrongful terminations in the case of pregnancy.
As a first step in taking on the case to try and get the couples’ jobs back—or at least clear their name so that it doesn’t harm their careers as teachers moving forward— DiFruscia said he has requested their personnel files from the school. He is giving the school until the holidays to get back to him, and then he will submit a list of demands on behalf of Houlihan and Ferland, he said.
“I think the right thing to do is reinstate them and pay back their wages, and live up to their end of the contract,” said DiFruscia, adding that he believes the reasoning the school gave of “good cause” doesn’t hold up legally, and the termination letter is faulty. “They weren’t specific about what they violated. My clients were saying simply that they wanted to have their names cleared, but the church has got to understand that the Catholic church is not above the law. This is the United State of America. I’m not waving a flag here, but they have a duty and responsibility to live up to the terms of the contract.”
If the school is not willing to discuss the matter, not only is DiFruscia prepared to move forward with legal action, but he said he will also probe whether or not they have a civil rights infraction on their hands that could be heard in federal court. “I think the next step is [the school] should reach out to us a little bit. If they don’t by the end of the month—I will give them the month—if not, we will file a lawsuit by February. The choice is theirs.”
DiFruscia said his clients were not willing to speak to the media now that they have legal counsel, but many members of the school’s community have rallied around them, sending them cards and assuring the couple that they have support.
December 12, 2013: An earlier version of this story indicated that the couple wanted to get their jobs back. According to a report from the Eagle Tribune, however, the couple merely wants to clear their record so it doesn't say they were fired.