California Employees Who Exhaust Pregnancy Leave May Still Have Disability Discrimination Claim under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA)
Ruling on an issue of first impression, a California Court of Appeal held, in Sanchez v. Swissport, Inc., that an employer that has provided a pregnant employee the full four months of leave available under California's Pregnancy Disability Leave Law ("PDLL") may still be sued for disability discrimination under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act ("FEHA"). The court determined that the PDLL remedies augment, rather than supplant, the FEHA's remedies for pregnancy, childbirth and pregnancy-related medical conditions.
The PDLL grants female employees disabled by pregnancy, childbirth or related medical condition up to four months of leave. In Sanchez, Ana Sanchez was employed by Swissport, an airport ground services company, as a cleaning agent. During the first month of her pregnancy, Sanchez was diagnosed with a high risk pregnancy which required that she go on bedrest. She requested a leave of absence until she was due to give birth in mid-October 2009. Swissport granted her about 19 weeks of leave, including vacation days and time off under the PDLL and the California Family Rights Act (CFRA). After the 19 weeks, Swissport terminated her employment. Sanchez alleged that she was fired because of her high-risk pregnancy and that Swissport failed to make any reasonable accommodation for her disability as required under the FEHA. She also contended that it would not have caused the company an undue burden to extend her leave of absence until shortly after she delivered the baby. The trial court dismissed the case under the FEHA.
On appeal, the Second District considered whether Swissport still owed Sanchez a duty to accommodate after it had provided Sanchez with the full four months of leave available under the PDLL. Sanchez argued that allowing the additional leave would not have resulted in an undue hardship, because she was able to return to her job duties shortly after her baby was born. Swissport argued that because pregnancy disability leave is capped at four months under the PDLL, it had no obligation under the FEHA to furnish Sanchez with additional leave due to her pregnancy-related disability. The court of appeal held that the PDLL makes clear that its remedies augment, rather than supplant, the FEHA's remedies. Thus, an employer's satisfaction of its obligations under the PDLL does not necessarily preclude liability under the FEHA for denial of accommodation to an employee who is disabled due to pregnancy, childbirth or related medical condition.
Implications and Recommendations
Under Sanchez, employees in California who are disabled as a result of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions may be entitled to more than the four months of leave provided under the PDLL. Where the employee's condition qualifies as a disability under the FEHA, the employer will remain obliged to engage in an interactive process with the employee and determine whether any reasonable accommodation — including furnishing additional leave — is possible.