Monday, April 14, 2014

Court Holds Placing Pregnant Employee on Paid Leave Not a "Per Se Reasonable Accommodation"

A federal district court in California granted in part and denied in part a defendant-employer's Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss a plaintiff's claims, primarily based on pregnancy discrimination, holding that their placing the plaintiff, who was pregnant and merely had lifting restrictions, on total disability leave was not a reasonable accommodation.

The facts of the case are simple.  The plaintiff, Azucena Tapia, became pregnant and when the pregnancy advanced, she informed the employer, Artistree, Inc. and Michaels, Inc., that she needed accommodation, including no heavy lifting or pushing and a 5-10 minute restroom break every 3 hours.  Tapia gave the employer a doctor's note in support of these accommodations, however, the employer allegedly failed to engage in a good faith interactive process to determine whether an appropriate accommodation would be possible, telling Tapia that they would not accommodate her restrictions or attempt to find a position where she could continue to work for the duration of her pregnancy.  Instead, they told her she should have her doctor place her on total disability, which she did.

Plaintiff claimed she could have worked throughout her pregnancy had defendants accommodated her restrictions as originally recommended.  Tapia did not work the remainder of her pregnancy, gave birth, and while she was in the hospital recovering, an HR rep called Tapia and told her that she could lose her job if she did not return to work that same day.  Defendants allegedly did not offer her an accommodation when Tapia explained that she would not be able to return to work immediately due to her C-section.  Tapia was terminated 13 days later with defendants citing  job abandonment. 

In denying defendants' motion to dismiss plaintiff's pregnancy discrimination claims, the court stated that, "it is not clear that Plaintiff was offered a 'reasonable accommodation.'  It is true that 'in appropriate circumstances, reasonable accommodation can include providing the employee accrued paid leave or additional unpaid leave for treatment.'"  However, the court stated, "paid leave is not a 'per se reasonable accommodation," noting that this employer offered only one possibility to the Plaintiff:  take total disability leave for the duration of her pregnancy.  The court then noted that the employer never sought to engage in the "interactive process" required, nor attempted to determine whether Plaintiff's disability could have been accommodated in another way. 

The court also noted precedent which held leave is a reasonable accommodation when it is likely the employee will be able to return to work and stated that this employer should have known that the Plaintiff would be giving birth around August 2012 and would need additional leave following the birth.  Thus, the court held that granting the Plaintiff leave for the duration of her pregnancy only to require her to return to work within two weeks of giving birth via C-section does not appear to be a reasonable accommodation.  Therefore, the employer's motion to dismiss plaintiff's claims regarding pregnancy discrimination was denied.

The case is Azucena Tapia v. Artistree, Inc., et al., Case No. CV 14-01381 DDP

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