PROVIDENCE, R.I., United States — A former employee of Tiffany & Co. says the jewellery maker pushed her out after she had her breasts and ovaries removed to avoid getting cancer.
Lisa O'Rourke alleges in a federal lawsuit that the New York-based company discriminated against her because she carries a gene mutation that put her at high risk for developing cancer, and she was compelled to have surgeries that her lawyer says were life-saving.
Tiffany is fighting the lawsuit, filed in November in US District Court in Rhode Island, and said it believes the allegations are "completely without merit."
O'Rourke said she decided to sue, and speak about her experience, because she wants to spread the word to Tiffany's many female customers, especially high-profile women affected by breast cancer. She specifically cited Angelina Jolie, who has been photographed in Tiffany, and Lady Gaga, who's starring in a new Tiffany ad and has spoken about a close friend stricken with breast cancer.
"I wish they knew some of the real story. Would they really want to support a company who treats an employee like that? In a time of need, they just toss 'em out," she said.
Tiffany spokesman Nathan Strauss wrote in an email that "we support equal opportunities in employment, place great importance on the health and well-being of our employees, and strive to eliminate discrimination in any form."
O'Rourke, 45, was director of strategic sourcing for Tiffany at its manufacturing facility in Cumberland, Rhode Island.
Her maternal grandmother and aunt both died of cancer, and her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and tested positive for a gene mutation that puts women at high risk for developing breast and ovarian cancers, O'Rourke said. In 2013, O'Rourke learned she was carrying the same gene mutation.
Jolie had her breasts removed in 2013 after discovering she carries a different gene mutation associated with higher breast cancer risk. In 2015, Jolie also had her ovaries removed.
O'Rourke made a similar choice. She took a leave to have her ovaries and breasts removed in January and February 2014, and said she told Tiffany there would be more surgeries down the line.
She returned to work that May, she said. When time came for a third surgery in July, she said she was initially asked to reschedule and told she did not have enough accrued time to take more leave under the Family Medical Leave Act, but was eventually told her job would be held. She returned to work the next month after an unpaid leave.
That October, she alerted the company she would need another leave for the fourth surgery. A month later, she was told her job was being eliminated. She said she was offered a different job with less compensation and responsibility, but she declined it.
Her lawyer said it's a case of discrimination due to her genetic condition.
"They needed to make reasonable accommodations," Kathleen Hagerty said.
The lawsuit asks for unspecified punitive damages, back pay and attorney's fees.
O'Rourke said she's not in it for the money, but is motivated in part by her two daughters, who have a 50 percent chance of inheriting the gene mutation.
"If they do inherit this gene, they will someday decide how they want to proceed, and I would be heartbroken if they had to endure the same type of discrimination that I did," she said. "At a time when one should focus on getting better, I had the added worry of losing my job and not being able to financially support my family."