California court rejects pregnancy discrimination claim against non-profit

Making schedule flexible to help worker avoid stress is not a reasonable accommodation, court says

California court rejects pregnancy discrimination claim against non-profit

An employee alleging pregnancy discrimination had to prove that she had a pregnancy-related condition and that she could perform her job’s essential functions with reasonable accommodation, the California Court of Appeal said in a recent case.

In the case of Lopez v. La Casa de Las Madres, the plaintiff worked for La Casa de Las Madres at various times between 2002 and 2017. In 2014, she became a shelter manager at its residential shelter for domestic violence victims.

The plaintiff gave birth in September 2016. She afterwards experienced complications, for which she provided certificates to her employer.

The plaintiff claimed that La Casa started sending harassing communications, failed to participate in an interactive process to decide if it could accommodate her condition, rebuffed her efforts to return to work, forced her out of her job, and misrepresented the reasons for her termination, which prevented her from securing work elsewhere.

Read more: California worker alleges 6 companies fired her when she returned from maternity leave

In June 2018, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit alleging the following claims against La Casa:

  • pregnancy discrimination under section 12945(a)(3)(A) of California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA)
  • harassment because of pregnancy under the FEHA
  • failure to prevent discrimination and harassment under the FEHA
  • disability discrimination under the FEHA
  • failure to accommodate under section 12940(m) of the FEHA
  • failure to engage in an interactive process under the FEHA
  • wrongful termination
  • intentional infliction of emotional distress
  • preventing future employment by misrepresentation

The trial court ruled in La Casa’s favor, which prompted the plaintiff to appeal. She argued that the trial court misapplied FEHA provisions requiring employers to provide reasonable accommodations for pregnancy-related conditions.

Employer not discriminatory

The California Court of Appeal for the First District affirmed the trial court’s decision. First, regarding the pregnancy discrimination claim, the appellate court determined that the trial court correctly applied the elements of section 12945(a)(3)(A).

Specifically, the plaintiff had the burden of showing that she had a condition relating to pregnancy or childbirth or a related medical condition, requested accommodation of the condition with her health care provider’s advice, was refused a reasonable accommodation by her employer, and could have performed her job’s essential functions with the reasonable accommodation.

Next, the appellate court held that the plaintiff failed to prove that her employer failed to accommodate her pregnancy-related disability under section 12940 and that she could perform the essential job functions of her role as a shelter manager even with a reasonable accommodation.

The court held that substantial evidence supported the following findings:

  • The essential functions of the plaintiff’s job included making critical decisions in an inherently stressful environment and on-the-spot decisions in emergency situations that could arise at any time and remaining “on call” to solve crises
  • Making the schedule flexible to allow the plaintiff to leave work to avoid stress or anxiety was not a reasonable accommodation
  • This change would not have enabled the plaintiff to perform her essential duties
  • Instead, this change would have excused the plaintiff from needing to perform her essential duties and would thus require another employee to do her job

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