On June 22, 2010, the Supreme Court of Ohio issued a long-awaited ruling in a pregnancy discrimination case. At issue was the validity of a “minimum length of service” requirement for determining an employee’s eligibility for leave and whether such a requirement could lawfully be applied to a woman requesting maternity leave. By a 5-1 vote (with new Chief Justice Brown not participating), the Supreme Court ruled that a company that imposes a minimum length of service requirement before any employee is eligible for leave does not violate Ohio anti-discrimination law by failing to grant an exception for maternity leave.
Facts of the Case
The case arose from the Pataskala Oaks Care Center, a nursing home in Licking County. Tiffany McFee worked for Pataskala Oaks for about eight months before she applied for pregnancy-related leave. McFee’s request was accompanied by a doctor’s note stating that she was unable to work due to pregnancy-related medical conditions. At that time, however, Pataskala Oaks’ written policy—spelled out clearly in its employee handbook—was that an employee was required to have been employed for 12 months before he or she was eligible to take leave for any purpose. Based on its policy, Pataskala Oaks denied McFee’s leave request. McFee was ultimately terminated—three days after the birth of her child—for missing work without leave.
Following her termination, McFee filed a complaint with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission (OCRC), claiming that Pataskala Oaks engaged in unlawful sex discrimination. The OCRC determined that Pataskala Oaks’ policy constituted unlawful sex discrimination under Ohio law. On appeal, the Licking County Common Pleas Court disagreed and found the policy lawful. McFee then appealed that decision to Ohio’s Fifth District Court of Appeals, which ruled against Pataskala Oaks. Siding with McFee, the court of appeals held that Ohio anti-discrimination law required employers to provide their employees with a reasonable period of maternity leave. The case then went to the Ohio Supreme Court.
Ohio Supreme Court’s Rationale
In its decision, the Court emphasized that Sections 4112.02(A) and 4112.01(B) of the Ohio Revised Code expressly state that pregnant women must be treated the same as non-pregnant employees. Thus, the Court reasoned, the Ohio statutes do not provide greater protection for pregnant employees than for employees who are not pregnant. In other words, Ohio law does not require an employer to give preferential treatment to pregnant women. Applying the length-of-service requirements to McFee’s request for pregnancy/maternity leave, without more, was therefore not enough to establish a discrimination claim under Ohio law. Thus, McFee could prevail on a pregnancy discrimination theory only if Pataskala Oaks treated her differently than its non-pregnant employees.
McFee could not make that showing. Because Pataskala Oaks’ length-of-service requirements “treat all employees the same” (i.e., every employee must work for 12 months before becoming eligible for leave), the Court found that Pataskala Oaks’ policy was “pregnancy-blind.” Accordingly, a pregnant employee who had not worked the requisite 12 months for Pataskala Oaks could be terminated (lawfully) for an unauthorized absence just as a non-pregnant employee could. Absent any other evidence beyond Pataskala Oaks’ length-of-service requirements, the Court found that McFee’s termination did not implicate the pregnancy discrimination prohibitions in R.C. Chapter 4112. Indeed, the court pointed out that McFee had produced no evidence to show that Pataskala Oaks’ reason for terminating her employment (i.e., taking leave from work when she was not eligible for leave) was a pretext for discrimination. Accordingly, the Court reversed the ruling of the court of appeals and found that McFee’s case should have been dismissed.
The Ohio Supreme Court’s decision is good news for employers, as it appears to foreclose the argument that an employer is required to provide maternity leave under Ohio law when the employee is otherwise ineligible for leave under the employer’s applicable leave policies. Employers should review their leave policies to make sure it is clear when an employee is eligible to take leave.
Employers should still tread with caution, however, in deciding how to respond to an employee’s requests for pregnancy-related leave. For example, this decision does not insulate an employer from denying qualifying leave (including maternity leave) to employees who may be entitled to such leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Moreover, an employer who may have granted exceptions to its leave policies in the past might be subject to a claim of pregnancy discrimination if it does not grant a similar exception to a woman requesting maternity leave.