Most California employers are keenly aware that California’s Pregnancy Disability Leave Law (“PDLL”) requires an employer to allow an employee disabled by pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition, to take a leave of absence for a reasonable period of time, not to exceed four months. This same statute requires the employer to reinstate the employee to the same or a comparable position at the close of the pregnancy leave. In Sanchez v. Swissport, Inc., the court concluded that an employer’s obligation to an employee disabled by pregnancy may extend well beyond providing a four month leave.
Ana Sanchez had been employed by Swissport for a year and a half when she was diagnosed early with a high-risk pregnancy requiring bed rest until birth. Swissport provided Sanchez with 19 weeks of leave consisting of her accrued vacation time as well as the four months permitted by the PDLL. At the expiration of 19 weeks of leave, Sanchez was unable to return to work and perform the essential functions of her position, even with accommodation and it was clear she would not return to work for at least an additional three months. At this point, Swissport terminated Sanchez’ employment based on the reasoning that it had fully complied with the PDLL provision requiring pregnancy leave of up to four months, and based on the further belief that it was entitled to terminate an employee who could not perform the essential functions of her position, even with accommodation.
In litigation, Swissport defended its decision and focused on the “not to exceed four months” language in the PDLL. Swissport contended that the PDLL set the maximum leave it was required to provide a pregnant employee and therefore, it was entitled to terminate Sanchez at the conclusion of the pregnancy leave, if she was unable to return to work. The court quickly rejected Swissport’s position. The court noted that the four month leave entitlement set forth in the PDLL is in addition to a pregnant employee’s rights under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”). The court concluded that while the PDLL provides an entitlement of up to four months of leave for an employee disabled by pregnancy, regardless of any hardship to the employer, under FEHA, an employee disabled by pregnancy is entitled to a reasonable accommodation—which may include leave of no statutorily fixed duration—provided that such accommodation does not impose an undue hardship on the employer. In the court’s view, Swissport erred by not engaging in an interactive process to determine whether a reasonable accommodation that did not cause undue hardship was available, and by not considering whether a leave through birth was such a reasonable accommodation. The court noted that the FEHC regulations interpreting FEHA specifically point out that an employee’s right to take a pregnancy disability leave under the PDLL is separate and distinct from that employee’s right to take a leave of absence as a form of reasonable accommodation under other provisions in FEHA.
Leaves of absence requests are one of the most vexing employment issues that employers are required to manage. An employee’s leave of absence not only affects the ongoing functioning of the business, it also affects the workload and morale of other employees. The Swissport case is a reminder that a formulaic and rigid approach to managing leaves of absence, while tempting because it provides clarity, is never the right approach under the law. In each instance, the employer must evaluate all the bases on which an employee may be entitled to a leave of absence, including, statutorily defined leaves such as the PDLL, the California Family Rights Act, and the Family and Medical Leave Act. However, even if an employee has exhausted all the statutorily defined leaves, the employer must determine whether the employee qualifies as disabled and is therefore entitled to an additional leave of absence as a reasonable accommodation. If you have any questions regarding leaves of absence, or any other issue relating to employment law, please contact one of our attorneys:
Daniel F. Pyne III
Richard M. Noack
Ernest M. Malaspina
Erik P. Khoobyarian