A woman’s doctor placed her on a lifting restriction during her pregnancy. Her employer had a light-duty policy for workers injured on the job and told her the restriction meant she effectively resigned from her job. Now a federal court has weighed in.
Many companies have light-duty programs for injured workers. Among other benefits, they can cut down on workers’ comp wage replacement costs if the employee was injured on the job.
But what about other situations in which employees have physical work restrictions? Such is the situation in this case.
Jennifer Latowski worked as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) at the Northwoods Nursing Center.
When supervisors at work found out she was pregnant, they required her to get a note from her doctor that she had no employment restrictions.
Her doctor said the only restriction was that she couldn’t lift anything weighing more than 50 pounds.
A director at the center told Latowski she could no longer work because Northwoods would accommodate only restrictions resulting from work-related incidents.
When Latowski tried to report for her next shift, the on-duty nurse informed her that she had resigned and escorted her off the property.
A couple of weeks later, Latowski received a letter from Northwoods that it would “not accommodate a non-work related restriction.”
Latowski filed an alleged violation of Title VII claiming pregnancy discrimination. Northwoods filed for summary judgment to get the case thrown out.
A U.S. district court granted Northwoods’ motion and dismissed the case. The court reasoned Northwoods’ policy was “pregnancy blind” and that there was no evidence of pregnancy discrimination against Latowski. She filed an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit.
Connection between pregnancy and job loss?
To reinstate her lawsuit, the Sixth Circuit noted Latowski had to show:
- she was pregnant
- she was qualified for her job
- she was subjected to an adverse employment decision, and
- there is a connection between her pregnancy and the adverse employment decision.
Points one and three weren’t disputed.
The appeals court said Latowski had also demonstrated she was qualified for her job. Northwoods hadn’t provided any evidence suggesting Latowski’s job performance was unsatisfactory before she became pregnant, and she passed several essential function tests after becoming pregnant.
The court also ruled Latowski had provided sufficient evidence to demonstrate a connection between her pregnancy and her termination. Latowski presented evidence Northwoods treated other CNAs with similar lifting restrictions more favorably by assigning them to light duty.
However, Northwoods responded with a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for terminating Latowski: It said its policy was to refuse accommodation for injuries occurring outside the workplace for economic reasons.
So, according to the Sixth Circuit, restricting its light-duty program to employees injured on the job wasn’t a problem.
But the case didn’t end there.
Latowski could prove Northwoods’ policy was a pretext for pregnancy discrimination.
The court found a reasonable jury could easily conclude Northwoods’ business decision was a pretext for pregnancy discrimination. The court said the fact that Northwoods’ policy would remove an employee able to do her job from its workforce was “lacking in merit.”
Another problem for Northwoods: statements made by its managers, including:
- One who said Latowski was removed from her job because they “would want to lose her baby”
- Another statement from a manager that Northwoods “would be liable if something happened to her baby and we allowed her to work against her doctor’s advice,” and
- A statement at a meeting that Latowski’s “belly would be in the way, and that she was unable to perform her job functions because of her pregnancy.”
For those reasons, the appeals court threw out the district court’s grant of summary judgment to Northwoods and remanded the case for further proceedings.
What do you think about the court’s decision? Let us know in the comments.
(Latowski v. Northwoods Nursing Center, U.S. Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit, No. 12-2408, 12/23/13)