Congress

Former staffer sues Rep. Henry Cuellar, saying she was fired because she was pregnant

Kristie Small says probationary period was extended after she told congressman she was pregnant

A lawsuit alleging sex discrimination by Rep. Henry Cuellar comes at a time of heightened scrutiny of the Texas Democrat as progressives hope to oust him in a primary. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Rep. Henry Cuellar has been sued by a former staffer who says she was fired after telling him she was pregnant.

The staffer, who filed a federal lawsuit in the Washington on Monday, said Cuellar’s actions were a violation of the Congressional Accountability Act. 

The lawsuit was first reported by The Associated Press. 

Kristie Small said she was working 10 hours per day as Cuellar’s acting chief of staff and sending the congressman daily status reports on her work. Small informed him in an Aug. 8 email she was pregnant, and would like to take maternity leave, the lawsuit says.

Cuellar responded by informing Small,  who was hired that June, that her continued employment was contingent on a 90-day “probation period” for new hires.

“Ok let’s talk about this and probation period for you as I have for every new employee,” Cuellar wrote in response.

Small had a job performance meeting with Cuellar in mid-September, and at that time the congressman extended the probationary period by 30 days. In October, she was fired for a failure to perform her duties that month.

Other staffers in Cuellar’s office told Small they had never heard of the 90-day probationary period, according to the suit.

In the complaint, Small pushes back against the claim that her work was poor.

Small worked on Capitol Hill for more than a decade before her hiring by Cuellar. Though she was brought on as a deputy chief of staff, she performed duties of a chief of staff because Cuellar had not yet hired one.

“After serving as staff in the House of Representatives for 13.5 years I had the opportunity to become the acting Chief of Staff for a different Congressman. After finding out and communicating I was pregnant, I was fired,” Small wrote in a Facebook post

Small suffered a stillbirth two weeks after her termination and Cuellar’s conduct “had a devastating impact” on her, the suit states.

In a statement to Roll Call, Cuellar’s office contended that Small’s legal complaint “does not provide a complete or accurate representation of her employment,” but did not name identify specific inaccuracies. Addressing details about “internal personnel matters” in the media is against office policy, Cuellar’s press secretary Olya Voytovich said.

“The Office adamantly denies that the termination of Ms. Small’s employment was based on her gender or pregnancy. It is against office policy to discuss specific details about internal personnel matters and the Office will use the forum that the plaintiff chose – federal court – to address the complaint, not the media,” Voytovich said. 

“Please be assured, however, that Ms. Small’s complaint does not provide a complete or accurate representation of her employment with the Office of Congressman Cuellar or the circumstances of the termination of her employment.”

Before filing her suit, Small sought counseling and mediation from the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights. But she exhausted administrative remedies in February.

While Capitol Hill employees are not protected by all federal employment statutes, they do have protections under the Congressional Accountability Act, or CAA, the 1995 law that governs workplace harassment and discrimination claims in Congress.

The reporting and resolution process for complaints under the CAA has been widely criticized for taking too long and putting much of the burden on complaintants. It requires periods of mandatory counseling and a 30-day “cooling off” period.

The suit comes a time of heightened scrutiny of the Texas Democrat.

The Justice Democrats, the grassroots group that helped propel the insurgent victory of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, have targeted Cuellar for ouster via primary challenge. Cuellar has represented the 28th District in South Texas since 2005 and formerly co-chaired the Blue Dog Coalition of moderate Democrats. Despite representing a solidly blue district, Cuellar voted with President Donald Trump 67 percent of the time last Congress, according to CQ Vote Watch.

Small’s attorney did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.

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