The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently settled a nationwide investigation of a company that allegedly discriminated against pregnant employees or those with disabilities. The terms of the settlement include a $3.5 million payment as well as injunctive relief, such as updating the company’s reasonable accommodations policies and training its 10,000 employees.
Issues involving the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and pregnancy-related limitations are one of the six national priorities identified by the EEOC. This is a hot topic in litigation across the country and courts have reached different conclusions. In the case that settled for $3.5 million, the EEOC accused the company, Cato Corporation (a women’s fashion retailer), of denying reasonable accommodations to pregnant employees and firing or requiring them to take unpaid leaves of absences because they were pregnant or had a disability.
When it comes to proving discrimination under the ADA, a plaintiff must first show that she was “disabled” under the meaning of the statute. This analysis is determined on a case-by-case basis. According to the EEOC’s regulations, a physical or mental impairment covers conditions affecting the reproductive system. 29 C.F.R. 1630.2(h)(1). Thus, the question in many cases becomes whether pregnancy-related health problems are a disability as defined by the ADA. Before Congress amended the ADA in 2008, most courts held that medical conditions associated with a pregnancy did not qualify as a disability. By way of example, a federal court in 2002 held that “the majority of federal courts hold that absent unusual circumstances, pregnancy-related medical conditions do not constitute a disability.” Gorman v. Wells Mfg. Corp., 209 F. Supp. 2d 970, 975 (S.D. Iowa 2002).
The 2008 amendments to the ADA expanded the ADA’s definition of a “disability.” Although courts still generally do not find pregnancy to fit within the definition of a “disability,” some federal courts have held that “where a medical condition arises out of a pregnancy and causes an impairment separate from the symptoms associated with a healthy pregnancy, or significantly intensifies the symptoms associated with a healthy pregnancy, such medical condition may fall within the ADA’s definition of a disability.” Love, 2017 WL 1022191, at *5 (quoting Mayorga, 2012 WL 3043021, at *5).
As the EEOC’s investigation indicates, pregnancy discrimination continues to impact employees in myriad occupations. As a New York Times’ article noted, pregnancy discrimination in corporate jobs “tends to be more subtle. Pregnant women and mothers are often perceived as less committed, steered away from prestigious assignments, excluded from client meetings and slighted at bonus season.”
Various federal and state laws, including the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, Family and Medical Leave Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, generally dictate that an employer may not treat pregnant employees differently than employees with other medical conditions. And employers are usually required to hold open a job with the same reinstatement rights during pregnancy-related absences as it would for employees on sick or other types of leave. Likewise, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act makes it unlawful for an employer to take an action against an employee (for example, denying them a promotion) that is based on their pregnancy.