A New Jersey woman who used a surrogate to have twins is suing Verizon for allegedly denying her paid maternity leave—and she claims the company later fired her when she took time off to care for the babies, who were born prematurely and who both died shortly after birth.
Marybeth Walz, a Verizon executive for 17 years, postponed starting a family for her career and later was unable to have children because of complications from cervical cancer. But in 2013, she became a mom with the help of egg freezing and a gestational carrier, court papers show.
Walz says her human resources manager at Verizon initially congratulated her when she requested maternity leave. But after Walz indicated her children would be born through a surrogate, the woman’s “tone immediately changed,” court papers state, and the manager allegedly told Walz she was ineligible for paid leave.
A Verizon spokesman said he could not comment on Walz’s case due to the pending litigation, but that paid maternity falls under the company’s short-term disability plans and that “women who become parents via surrogates are not currently covered by this.”
Still, he said, “Verizon has a zero-tolerance policy against discrimination of any kind and strongly denies any claims of it in this matter.”
The federal lawsuit, filed in Massachusetts, claims Verizon’s treatment of Walz only worsened after her twin boys, Jude and Thad, were born four months early via an emergency C-section in November 2013. Walz alleges discrimination by Verizon on the basis of sex, pregnancy, and disability, among other potential violations.
The case is one of a handful to raise questions on how companies handle surrogacy, a method of having children that’s increasingly common.
Walz’s attorney, Nancy Cremins, said Verizon’s actions are at odds with the company’s claims online. On its website, the company bills itself as the “top company for working mothers” and claims to offer moms leave “so they can bond with their new child, whether that child joins the family through birth or adoption.”
“By not providing that opportunity to Walz… [it shows] the way she had chosen to start her family was not sanctioned by the company,” Cremins told The Daily Beast.
Walz, who lives in Red Bank, New Jersey, was hired as a senior client executive in 1997 and won several sales awards over the years, according to her complaint.
In 2001, doctors diagnosed Walz with cervical cancer and removed her uterus as part of her treatment, rendering her unable to become pregnant. “As someone who is unable to become pregnant, Ms. Walz suffers from a pregnancy-related medical condition and disability,” court papers state.
Still, Walz was able to freeze eight of her eggs in 2011 and find a sperm donor two years later. Her sister-in-law, Colleen, agreed to be the gestational carrier for Walz’s babies, and she and her husband waived all parental rights, according to court papers.
Doctors transferred four embryos into the surrogate mother’s uterus in May 2013. A month later, a pregnancy test revealed Colleen was pregnant with twins. The babies were due on Feb. 14, 2014, court records show.
Walz obtained a pre-birth order in North Carolina, where her sister-in-law lived, that listed Walz as the sole mother of each child on birth certificates. No father was listed.
In August 2013, Walz informed her human resources manager that she wanted to utilize her paid maternity leave, which provides six to eight weeks off, court papers state. The manager allegedly said Walz was ineligible and suggested she instead apply for unpaid leave under the Family Medical Leave Act.
Walz tried to explain how her uterus was removed because of cancer and “that using a gestational carrier was the only method by which she could have biological children due to her disability,” according to court papers.
The manager allegedly later asked Walz why she didn’t “just adopt” the twins to receive thousands in expense reimbursements through the company’s adoption assistance policy. Paid leave wasn’t available unless Walz carried the babies herself, the manager repeated, according to the lawsuit.
“Shame you are doing it that way, because we would have given you the $10,000 [Adoption Assistance Policy] benefit,” the manager allegedly told Walz.
After the meetings with the HR manager, Walz sold her house so she could afford her unpaid time off, court records show.
Walz’s twins, Jude and Thad, were delivered by emergency C-section in November 2013 and weighed only about 4 pounds. Tragically, Thad died of a pulmonary hemorrhage in Walz’s arms the next day. Jude was hospitalized in critical condition, according to court papers.
During this time, Walz said she received permission from her manager to work from North Carolina. In January 2014, Jude was airlifted from a North Carolina hospital to The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where he was diagnosed with infantile fibrosarcoma, a rare form of congenital cancer.
One month later, the lawsuit claims, Verizon notified Walz that she was essentially being demoted to an entry-level sales team. The grieving mother was terrified of losing her career and that she’d see a significant pay cut, court papers allege.
“Ms. Walz’s emotional distress resulting from Verizon’s treatment of her… during an otherwise emotionally traumatic time, resulted in her subsequent major depressive disorder,” her lawsuit states.
Walz cared for Jude until his death in May 2014. She was granted short-term disability for severe depression due to the loss of both babies, according to the suit.
She says Verizon asked what her plans were just before the disability ended in August 2014. The company never offered a gradual return to work schedule or tried to accommodate her, her lawsuit alleges.
Because she wasn’t aware of other options, Walz applied for long-term disability, which she was granted in September 2014. A rep for the insurance provider, MetLife, indicated Walz could return to her job, or a comparable job, once her condition improved, according to the lawsuit.
But shortly after she applied for long-term disability, Walz says, she received a termination letter from Verizon. She remains unemployed.
“This is a person who gave a lot of value to the company, and in her time of need, in pain, they effectively kicked her while she was down,” Cremins told The Daily Beast.
Verizon isn’t the only company to face litigation over paid maternity leave.
In 2011, Long Island mom Kara Krill filed a suit against Cubist Pharmaceuticals, based in Massachusetts, for denying her paid maternity leave after she gave birth to twins via surrogate. The case was settled a year later, records show.
Krill developed a reproductive disability in 2007 after giving birth to her first child. Her husband hired a surrogate mother, who became pregnant with twins in 2010. Like Walz, Krill and her husband obtained a pre-birth order that establishes them as the sole parents “without having to institute adoption proceedings,” court papers show.
Naomi Cahn, a law professor at George Washington University, said these cases are “testing the boundaries of sex discrimination law, the boundaries of disability law, and it’s showing the types of issues that are likely to arise as surrogacy becomes more common.”
Cahn said Walz’s lawsuit could depend largely on the wording of Verizon’s maternity leave policy. “Was it designed to exclude surrogate mothers, or was it thought of as so uncommon that it wasn’t included?” Cahn told The Daily Beast.
“It’s up to Verizon to explain why it allows mothers but not surrogate mothers paid maternity leave,” she said.