A pregnant welder who was transferred from her job can pursue pregnancy discrimination and Americans with Disabilities Act claims, a divided federal appeals court has ruled in largely overturning a lower court decision.
However, a panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati upheld the lower court’s ruling in Heather Spees v. James Marine Inc. and JamesBuilt L.L.C. that dismissed Spees’ claim that her subsequent termination also constituted pregnancy discrimination.
According to the 2-1 ruling Tuesday, August 10, Spees was hired in 2007 to work as a welder at Paducah, Kentucky-based JMI’s JamesBuilt facility, which focuses largely on building deck and tank barges, towboats and dry docks for the river-shipping industry. At the time, only four of JMI’s 935 nonoffice positions were female and Spees was the only female assigned to the JamesBuilt facility.
She discovered she was pregnant shortly after she started the job. First she was transferred to the tool room on the day shift, which, unlike welding, does not require special training. About a week later, she was transferred to nights in the tool room. After her doctor said she needed bed rest for the remainder of her pregnancy, she was terminated and told the reason was “for being pregnant,” according to the opinion.
Spees sued in April 2008, alleging pregnancy discrimination on the basis of her transfer and termination, as well as disability discrimination.
In reversing the lower court’s ruling on pregnancy discrimination for the transfer, the majority on the appeals court panel said, “As a whole, the evidence is sufficient to raise a genuine issue of material fact as to whether JMI management, rather than undertaking an objective evaluation to determine whether Spees could perform the welding job while pregnant, instead subjectively viewed Spees’ pregnancy as rendering her unable to weld.
“This would allow a reasonable jury to find that JMI’s decision to transfer Spees was made out of concern for her pregnancy and the well-being of her unborn child rather than because Spees was unable to perform her job as a welder. Such concerns, though laudatory, do not justify an adverse employment action,” the majority said.
However, the court agreed that the summary judgment dismissing her claim that she was terminated because of her pregnancy was proper, because Spees voluntarily submitted a doctor’s note to her employer advising her to have bed rest for the rest of her pregnancy.
On the ADA claim that the lower court had dismissed regarding her transfer, which the appeals court overturned, the 6th Circuit said there was “evidence that JMI regarded Spees as having an impairment.”
The case was remanded to the lower court.