Timing Is Everything: Employee Can Advance Pregnancy Discrimination Claim

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On the heels of the EEOC’s recent guidance on pregnancy discrimination, a federal court has determined that an employee who was terminated based on future pregnancy-related job restrictions may proceed to trial on her pregnancy discrimination claim. This case is timely in that it comes just ahead of Governor Quinn’s anticipated signing of House Bill 8, which amends the Illinois Human Rights Act by requiring an employer to provide a reasonable accommodation to a pregnant worker absent an undue burden to that employer. (See June 6, 2014 Franczek Radelet Alert.)

In Cadenas v. Butterfield Health Care IL, Inc., No. 12-C-07750 (N.D. Ill. July 15, 2014), the plaintiff worked as a certified nursing assistant, a position that required her to lift and move patients on a daily basis. During week 14 of her pregnancy, the plaintiff submitted a doctor’s note stating that effective immediately she could not lift, push or pull anything over 20 pounds. Because the employer’s policy was to provide light duty only for job-related injuries, and the plaintiff was ineligible for FMLA leave, the employer informed her that the doctor’s note would be considered her intent to resign voluntarily unless she provided another doctor’s note removing the restrictions. The following week, the plaintiff submitted another doctor’s note that did not lift the prior restrictions, but rather, indicated that those same restrictions would become effective during week 20 of her pregnancy, roughly five weeks later. Despite the employee’s ability to work through week 20 without restriction, her employer refused to allow her to return to work until after her baby was born.

As to the plaintiff’s pregnancy discrimination claim, the employer moved for summary judgment, arguing that she was terminated because of her inability to perform her essential job functions, not because she was pregnant. The court didn’t agree. Acknowledging that the employer lawfully could have terminated her employment when her restrictions took effect during week 20 of her pregnancy (because she would be unable to perform her essential job functions), the timing of her termination raised suspicion, as she was immediately terminated in week 15, five weeks prior to the time the restrictions would take effect. Moreover, the employer never stated a legitimate business reason for terminating her short of week 20, a fact that might cause a reasonable jury to conclude that the plaintiff was fired because of her pregnancy.

The Cadenas case only examined federal law, but in Illinois, House Bill 8 will impact an employer’s obligation to accommodate a pregnant worker. Currently, Illinois employers are not required to accommodate a pregnant employee. However, under the legislation awaiting Governor Quinn’s signature, Illinois employers would be required to provide “reasonable accommodations” to their employees based on “pregnancy, childbirth, and medical or common conditions related to pregnancy or childbirth.” The bill, which would take effect January 1, 2015, provides a long list of possible accommodations, including light duty, longer bathroom breaks, and even modified work schedules. An employer can only avoid providing such an accommodation if it proves the change would be an undue hardship on its business operations.

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