In Cadenas v. Butterfield Health Care II, Inc. (N.D. Ill. 7/15/14), a federal court asked the question of whether an employer could terminate a pregnant employee on the basis of its inability to accommodate her future pregnancy-related job restrictions. Even though the employee won this battle, the employer really won the war.
Araceli Cadenas worked as a certified nursing assistant at a nursing and rehabilitation facility. Her position required her to pull, push, or lift at least 20 pounds. At her 15th week of pregnancy, Cadenas presented her employer a note from her doctor stating that once she reached the 20th week of pregnancy, she would no longer be able to lift more than 20 pounds. Faced with an employee who soon would be unable to perform the essential functions of her job, the company fired her.
First, the court concluded that that Butterfield had no duty to accommodate Cadenas’s pregnancy-related restrictions.
Meadowbrook was not required to accommodate Cadenas’ physical restrictions — if it would not have accommodated a non-pregnant employee’s similar restrictions — or give her any special treatment, such as light duty, if it would not have afforded that option to a non-pregnant employee. Here, there's no evidence that Meadowbrook applied its light duty policy inconsistently to pregnant and non-pregnant employees. Cadenas submits no competent evidence to contradict the fact that Meadowbrook denied both pregnant and non-pregnant employees an accommodation of light duty work unless they had suffered a work-related injury. This neutral policy is not evidence of discrimination.
Thus, without any duty to accommodate, Meadowbrook was entitled to fire Cadenas at her 20th week of pregnancy, because, at that time, she could not perform the basic functions of the job.
In this case, Meadowbrook never suggested, or provided evidence, that there was any business reason not to let Cadenas work during the five weeks remaining before her restrictions went into effect.… Without any physical restrictions applicable between weeks 15 and 20 of Cadenas’ pregnancy, Meadowbrook has pointed to no non-discriminatory reason for terminating Cadenas effective immediately.… On these facts, a reasonable jury could conclude Meadowbrook terminated Cadenas because of her pregnancy, not because she was subject to any present restrictions.
Thus, Cadenas can take her claim to a jury, but her economic damages are limited to five weeks back pay.
What can we learn from this case?
- It is okay not to accommodate a pregnant employees’ restrictions, as long as there is no evidence of providing accommodations to other employees with similarly debilitating medical conditions. Given the scope of the definition of “disability” under the ADA, coupled with the ADA’s reasonable accommodation requirements, this might be a high hurdle to overcome, this case notwithstanding. Also, don't forget about the EEOC's recent sweeping Enforcement Guidance on this issue.
- If a pregnant employee tells you that she will be unable to perform at some point in the future, wait until that time to terminate her. This employer could have saved itself a headache of a lawsuit by waiting five weeks to fire Cadenas. Of course, winning a lawsuit is relative, and if you could made the argument that employer won this case because it limited its potential exposure for economic damages to five weeks' back pay, I would not disagree with you.