Pregnancy and Disability Discrimination the Focus of EEOC Enforcement Activity

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Since Congress’ enactment of amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 2008, making it easier to establish disability status under that law, the EEOC has directed more of its attention to claims of pregnancy and disability discrimination and accommodation of pregnancy-related limitations. In its 2012 Strategic Enforcement Plan, the Commission identified the investigation and pursuit of this type of claim as a national priority. This enforcement initiative was recently demonstrated in a lawsuit filed by the EEOC against an employer which allegedly denied accommodations to an employee who suffered from complications arising from her pregnancy. The suit, EEOC v. Engineering Documentation Systems, Inc., settled for $70,000 before a judgment on the merits was reached. However, the case serves as a reminder to employers that the issue of pregnancy-related disability is now being targeted by the EEOC.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), prohibits discrimination against employees or job applicants on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions. The EEOC takes the position that Title VII and the PDA require employers to treat pregnant employees in the same manner as other employees with temporary medical conditions. For example, according to the EEOC, if an employer provides leaves of absence or light duty to employees with short-term medical conditions which render those employees unable to work, then an employee unable to work due to her pregnancy must also be afforded the same treatment.1 But Title VII is not the only potentially applicable law in this circumstance. The ADA requires employers to provide “reasonable accommodation” to an employee with an actual (or record of) disability. This raises the question whether a pregnant employee has a “disability” within the meaning of the ADA.

Under the ADA, a disability is defined in part as a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits a major life activity. Prior to the amendments to the ADA, temporary medical conditions generally were not found by the courts to constitute disabilities, on the grounds that short-term impairments were not “substantially limiting.” However, the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) has led to a more expansive interpretation of the term “disability.” Specifically, the EEOC’s regulations implementing the ADAAA state that an impairment may be substantially limiting of a major life activity, and thus a disability, even if it is of a duration of less than six months. While the EEOC still considers pregnancy itself not to constitute a disability (See EEOC’s “Questions and Answers on the Final Rule Implementing the ADA Amendments Act of 2008”), it recognizes that certain impairments resulting from pregnancy may be disabilities if they substantially limit a major life activity. As stated on the EEOC’s webpage regarding pregnancy discrimination, this could include short term complications of pregnancy such as gestational diabetes or preeclampsia.

With the possibility that more medical conditions and complications arising from pregnancy will now fall within the definition of disability under the ADAAA, employers must be more cognizant of when an obligation to consider and provide reasonable accommodation to employees with a pregnancy-related disability arises. Such accommodations might include leaves of absence, job reassignment, light duty, or job modifications, unless such accommodations would result in an undue hardship to the employer. It is also imperative that employers engage in the “interactive process” with such employees to identify reasonable accommodation. The failure to take such proactive measures can result in liability for an employer, particularly given that the EEOC is now focused on this area of enforcement.

1 Interestingly, in the case of Young v UPS, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit recently held that an employer’s policy of only offering light duty to employees with job-related injuries did not violate Title VII and the PDA – even though an employee with a lifting restriction due to her pregnancy was denied light duty under that policy. The Court reasoned that because such policy treated pregnant workers and nonpregnant male and female workers alike with respect to off-the-job injuries, the policy did not result in pregnancy-based gender discrimination. The Court emphasized that Title VII and the PDA do not require preferential treatment to be given to pregnant employees. However, the Court did not offer an opinion whether such treatment was required under the amendments to the ADA.