Can an employer be liable for retaliation under the Rehabilitation Act when it denies a non-disabled pregnant employee’s request to work from home? In Wonasue v. University of Maryland Alumni Association, (D. Md. November 22, 2013), the District Court of Maryland says it can when the denial is accompanied by a warning that the employee needs to commit herself to full time work.

The plaintiff, the executive manager of the Alumni Association, went to the emergency room because she was having “early sickness symptoms” associated with pregnancy. At the emergency room, she was diagnosed with hyperemesis, a severe form of morning sickness where excessive vomiting can cause dehydration and chemical imbalances. The emergency room doctor released her to return to work without any restrictions.

When the employee returned to work, she asked if she could work some days from home or take a leave of absence. Her supervisor denied her request and refused to read the medical discharge papers that the employee offered her. The supervisor reminded the employee of the full time nature of her job duties and told her that she needed to think about what she wanted to do if she could not commit herself fully to her job.

Within days, the employee resigned and brought a variety of legal claims, including discrimination based on her disability—the severe morning sickness—and retaliation against her for requesting accommodations for her pregnancy. The court held that since the emergency room doctor released her to return to work without any restrictions, the plaintiff’s severe morning sickness was not a disability and, thus, she was not entitled to any accommodation.

Concerning the retaliation claim, the court determined that this statement that plaintiff needed to think about her future if she could not commit fully to her job could be construed as a verbal warning. This statement, when added to the denial of her request to work from home or take leave, “might well have dissuaded” a reasonable worker from making or supporting a discrimination charge. Based on this, the court allowed the employee’s retaliation claim to proceed even though the employee was not disabled and was not entitled to an accommodation at the time of her request.

Patricia Anderson Pryor