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Infertility is Fertile Ground for Disability Discrimination Claims

With this issue on the EEOC’s enforcement radar, employers that deny time off for fertility treatments may find themselves as the start of the EEOC’s next infertility-related press release.

December 16, 2013
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Related Topics: Wrongful Discharge, Medical Benefits Law, Employee Leave, Disability Benefits, Legal Compliance, Disabilities, Discrimination and EEOC Compliance, Health and Wellness, Policies and Procedures, Benefits, Legal
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I’ve written before about employers getting themselves in trouble for pregnancy discrimination for firing employees while undergoing fertility treatments (here and here). Last week, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced the settlement of case involving a different kind of “infertility” discrimination — the Americans with Disabilities Act.

A Hawaiian resort retailer will pay $60,000 for discriminating against an employee because of her fertility treatments and eventual pregnancy.… According to the EEOC’s suit, a female retail buyer in Honolulu informed the company that she began treatments for infertility in 2011. Upon disclosure of her disability, a company official allegedly made offensive comments about her intentions and became even less receptive upon disclosure of her pregnancy later that same year. The buyer was disciplined after disclosing her need for fertility treatments, and then discharged.… 
Timothy Riera, director of the EEOC’s Honolulu Local Office, added, “Federal law protects workers who are discriminated against due to their infertility, a covered disability. Workers who undergo fertility treatments should be treated like any other employee with a disability—with equal and careful consideration of reasonable accommodation requests.”
The EEOC’s approach to infertility as an ADA-covered disability is not novel. More than a dozen years ago, in LaPorta v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (W.D. Mich. 2001), a federal court concluded that because infertility substantially limits the major life activity of reproduction, it was an ADA-covered disability. With the expansion of the definition of disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act, the Act’s coverage of infertility should not be in dispute. (In that case, Wal-Mart was accused of denying a single day off as a reasonable accommodation for the employee’s fertility treatment).
 
While this issue is seldom litigated, employers that fail to accommodate employees’ infertility treatments, or otherwise discriminate against employees undergoing fertility treatments, could see an explosion of these types of claims. As the EEOC reminds us, “One of the six national priorities identified by the EEOC’s Strategic Enforcement Plan (SEP) is for the agency to address emerging and developing issues in equal employment law, including issues involving the ADA and pregnancy-related limitations, among other possible issues.” In other words, this issue is very much on the EEOC’s radar.
 
Infertility and its treatments are stressful on parents-to-be. Unless you’ve experienced a prolonged inability to conceive, and the fertility treatments that go along with it, it’s difficult to understand the stress it causes. Part of that stress is caused by the time away from work. Fertility treatments, particularly in vitro fertilization, are both time consuming and time sensitive. Do not exacerbate an employee’s stress by toying with their time away from work. Moreover, with this issue on the EEOC’s enforcement radar, employers that deny time off for fertility treatments may find themselves as the start of the EEOC’s next infertility-related press release.
 
Written by Jon Hyman, a partner in the Labor & Employment group of Kohrman Jackson & Krantz. For more information, contact Hyman at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com. You can also follow Hyman on Twitter at @jonhyman.

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