Recent case law confirms the need for employers to be cautious about mechanically applying pregnancy disability leave laws without considering the implications of the Fair Employment and Housing Act.
In Sanchez v. Swissport, Inc., 2013 DJDAR 2400 (Cal. App. 2d Dist., Feb. 21, 2013), the Court of Appeal concluded that the plaintiff stated a claim for relief under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act ("FEHA"), even though her employer granted the maximum leave provided by California's Pregnancy Disability Leave Law ("PDL") before terminating her due to her failure to return to work.
In February 2009, the plaintiff was diagnosed with a high-risk pregnancy requiring bed rest. The plaintiff alleged that her employer knew that she was anticipated to deliver her baby in October 2009 and that she would need a leave of absence lasting until after she gave birth. She also alleged that the employer terminated her in July 2009, after she had taken just over 19 weeks of leave, which consisted of her accrued vacation time, California Family Rights Act leave, and the 4 months of leave provided for in the PDL. She further alleged that soon after giving birth, she would have been able to return to work with the need for only minimal accommodations, if any, to perform the essential functions of her job.
The trial court dismissed the lawsuit without leave to amend because the plaintiff had exhausted her PDL leave and was unable to return to work. The Court of Appeal disagreed, concluding that the plain language of the PDL "makes clear that its remedies augment, rather than supplant, those set forth elsewhere in the FEHA." Therefore, if an employee has exhausted her PDL leave but remains disabled, she is still protected by the FEHA. This means that the employer must meet its obligation to reasonably accommodate the employee and engage in the interactive process to explore what accommodations might be available.
What constitutes a reasonable accommodation, of course, depends on the facts and circumstances of each case. Swissport confirms that, at a very minimum, an employer cannot simply terminate an employee because her allotted pregnancy disability leave has expired; rather, the employer must engage in a good faith interactive process to explore what accommodations might be reasonable under the circumstances.