Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Is Pregnancy a Disability?

Earlier this month, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma issued a decision which clarifies the relationship between pregnancy and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The case concerns an employee working as a certified nursing assistant at an assisted-living facility.  The employee, who was thirteen weeks pregnant, gave her employer a doctor’s note restricting her from lifting more than 25 pounds.  The employer immediately placed the employee on FMLA leave and subsequently terminated her after the 12 weeks of FMLA time had expired.

In the court’s dismissal of the employee’s ADA claim, it stated, "pregnancy and related medical conditions do not, absent unusual circumstances, constitute a `physical impairment' under the ADA."  The court further explained that a plaintiff alleging a pregnancy-related disability under the ADA cannot merely state that she is pregnant and her doctor has imposed a restriction.  Instead, she would need to claim that she was pregnant and had a related physical or mental impairment to satisfy her initial burden in bringing a claim under the ADA.  LaCount v. South Lewis SH OPCO, LLC, Case No. 16-CV-0545-CVE-TLW (N.D. Okla. May 5, 2017).  The EEOC lists gestational diabetes or preeclampsia, a condition characterized by pregnancy-induced hypertension and protein in the urine, as examples of pregnancy-related impairments which might be considered disabilities under the ADA.  It is when unusual circumstances such as these which trigger the employer’s obligation to provide reasonable accommodation for a disability related to pregnancy, unless doing so would place an undue hardship on the employer.

The court ultimately dismissed the employee’s pregnancy discrimination claim as well, finding that the employee did not sufficiently allege that she was treated differently because of her pregnancy.  Although the employer placed the employee on medical leave after being informed of the pregnancy and weight restriction, the court stated that her “allegations could support an inference that she was placed on medical leave due to a lifting restriction, but there are no allegations tending to suggest that plaintiff was treated differently than other similarly situated employees.”  The employee did state that she was treated differently than employees who were disabled however, as the court established, the employee was not actually disabled as a result of her pregnancy.

The employee in this case, like many employee-plaintiffs, cited to her employer’s handbook in an attempt to substantiate her claims.  Although the court found that the employer’s policies, alone, did not show discrimination, employers are nonetheless encouraged to consult with a labor and employment attorney and ensure its policies are in compliance with applicable laws.