One federal court – the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois – recently reviewed a case in which a pregnant employee was terminated after informing her employer that she would be subject to a lifting restriction beginning at the 20th week of her pregnancy. Although the employee was only in her 15th week of pregnancy, she was terminated on the same day that the employer was informed of the upcoming restriction. A federal district court has allowed her claim of “anticipatory discharge” to move ahead for a jury trial. Cadenas v. Butterfield Health Care II, Inc., N.D. Ill., No. 12-c-07750, July 15, 2014.
In September 2011, Araceli Cadenas began working as a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) at Meadowbrook Manor, a nursing and rehabilitation facility in Naperville, Illinois. The CNA position is physically demanding, and requires pushing, lifting, turning, and re-positioning patients. Therefore, the CNAs were required to pull, push, or lift at least 20 pounds in order to qualify for the job.
Although Meadowbrook has a light-duty policy, that policy is limited strictly to employees with work-related injuries – no employee has been assigned to light duty for a non-work-related injury, including pregnancy limitations, since at least 2001.
In early 2012, Cardenas became pregnant. On May 7, 2012, Cadenas provided to Meadowbrook’s Human Resource (HR) Director, Joan Soppi, a note from a physician. According to the note, Cadenas was restricted and could do “no lifting, pushing, pulling over 20 lbs.” After receiving that information, Soppi stated that if Cadenas did not provide a note rescinding the lifting restriction, the first note would be considered a resignation letter because Meadowbrook doesn’t “put people on light duty who are pregnant.” Further, because Cardenas had worked at Meadowbrook for only eight months, she was not eligible for FMLA leave (which requires 12 months of employment).
Cadenas then obtained a second note from her doctor, which stated that the lifting restrictions would not be imposed until roughly five weeks later, beginning on Cardenas’ 20th week of pregnancy. However, when Cardenas attempted to return to work on May 17, her name had been removed from the schedule. Although Cardenas was not restricted from her job duties on that date, a “Personnel Change of Status” form was filed on her behalf, listing “Resign” as the termination type. The form also stated that Cardenas “cannot work full duty CNA position due to pregnancy with doctor note restriction.”
Cadenas then filed a lawsuit alleging pregnancy discrimination; Meadowbrook filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that Cadenas was not terminated because she was pregnant, but rather because she was unable to perform the required duties of her job.
The court stated initially that “Meadowbrook was entitled to fire Cardenas as of the 20th week of her pregnancy when, it is undisputed, she would no longer be able to do her job effectively.” That statement was based on the fact that there was no evidence that Meadowbrook applied its light duty policy inconsistently to pregnant and non-pregnant employees. The court found therefore, that Meadowbrook’s “neutral policy is not evidence of [pregnancy] discrimination.”
However, the court then addressed the question of whether – as a matter of law – Meadowbrook could terminate Cardenas at 15 weeks of pregnancy, before the actual restrictions took place. The court, quoting a 1999 Seventh Circuit decision, held that in that instance, Meadowbrook could not terminate Cardenas “simply because it believes pregnancy might prevent the employee from doing her job.” There was no evidence of any business reason against allowing Cardenas to stay on until her restrictions went into effect – in fact, the court held that there was “no evidence that Cardenas’ restrictions were to take effect during a particularly critical time for Meadowbrook,” or that any business-related reason existed for removing Cardenas from her position prior to her actual restriction.
According to the court, the factual evidence (including the timing of the discharge, the absence of any nondiscriminatory business reason for that discharge, and the HR Director’s statement that Cardenas could not work because of her pregnancy) permits an “inference of discrimination” based on the anticipatory discharge and, therefore, Meadowbrook’s motion asking the court to dismiss the case was denied.
Based largely on the EEOC’s July 2014 guidance on pregnancy discrimination, employers are becoming more aware of their obligations related to pregnant employees, and of the overlap between the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This case is a situation in which that overlap ultimately could result in legal liability for Meadowbrook, which discharged Cardenas in anticipation of restrictions, and without engaging in the interactive process necessary to determine whether Cardenas was, in fact, limited in her ability to do her job at the specific time of her termination.