A federal court recently ruled that an employer's rigid application of its light-duty policy could be used as evidence of pregnancy discrimination. The employer had a policy of providing light-duty jobs only to employees with on-the-job injuries, which the Court here, and the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) in general, have blessed as not showing disability bias against those with impairments caused off-the-job. Here, however, a pregnant certified nursing assistant who had a temporary lifting restriction was denied a light-duty job. Since her job required lifting in assisting nursing home residents, the employer considered her to have "resigned" when the employee gave notice of the doctor's restrictions. The employee sued.
After a lower court granted summary judgment, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and explained that a trial was necessary. The Sixth Circuit explained that restricting a light-duty program to only employees who are injured on the job is not a problem. However, the Court believed that a jury could conclude that this type of policy may be a pretext for pregnancy discrimination, especially given the comments made to her after her termination. Under the PDA (Pregnancy Discrimination Act), an employee only has to show that their ability to work is similar to other employees' abilities. Given this analysis, a pregnant employee need only show that her employer treated the non-pregnant employees more favorably by allowing them to work light-duty jobs, while instead terminating her.
Why is this important?
- As we have often advised, employers considering a doctor's restrictions should look to the facts and circumstances of each situation. Here, what seemed to be a relatively easy accommodation to assist a pregnant employee (very sympathetic) on a temporary basis and that had been provided for others, was denied. This denial was then used as evidence of pregnancy discrimination.
- The rigid application of the policy – a policy that was not discriminatory on its face – was considered by the Court along with evidence of "comments" to find a jury issue.
- It is not clear whether the employer "engaged" the employee in a discussion about other possibilities, which could have been a further problem. Rigid application of any accommodation policy invites increased scrutiny and, as evidenced here, can lead to having to tell the story to a jury.
- Employers who have light-duty policies that are restricted to work-related-injuries need to carefully consider all options before denying the light-duty accommodations to pregnant employees in light of this decision. Otherwise, a once helpful policy may produce unintended discriminatory consequences.
- Employers in the Sixth Circuit (Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan) are advised to keep tabs on the ultimate outcome of this case, Latowski v. Northwoods Nursing Center.