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Giving light duty to injured workers but not pregnant worker did not violate PDA

By Lorene D. Park, J.D.

Granting summary judgment against a Pregnancy Discrimination Act claim by an emergency medical technician who was denied light duty when she had lifting restrictions during her pregnancy, a federal district court in Alabama found that she failed to proffer any evidence that non-pregnant employees were treated more favorably in comparable circumstances. She was not comparable, said the court, to individuals who were given light duty after on-the-job injuries (Durham v. Rural/Metro Corp., October 9, 2018, Axon, A.).

Lifting restriction during pregnancy. The employee was an emergency medical technician, which required that she respond to emergencies and she had to “frequently lift and/or move up to 20 pounds and occasionally lift and/or move, with help, up to 100 pounds.” About five months after she was hired, the employee informed the manager that she was pregnant. During the same conversation, she disclosed that her doctor restricted her from lifting more than 50 pounds during her pregnancy. He responded that she would not be able to “work on the truck” with that restriction. As an alternative, she requested that he move her to either light duty or dispatch.

Denied light duty. Under the “light duty” policy, the employer temporarily modified an existing position or work schedule, or provided transitional assignments, to accommodate temporary restrictions identified by a medical policy. By its terms, the policy only applied to employees who suffer from a work-related injury or illness.

The employee was informed that light duty was only provided to employees who were injured at work or were on workers’ compensation. As for her request to work dispatch, the manager said he would get back with her. He discussed with HR whether there were any open positions and testified that his office was fully staffed, so putting her on dispatch would be “creating an extra person that I did not need.”

Offered unpaid leave. Because she was not eligible for FMLA leave yet, the employee’s only available option was unpaid personal leave, which the employer allowed for medical reasons. Leave could be granted up to 90 days with a possible extension for another 90 days. The employee reviewed the policy and believed that it prohibited her from finding another job or filing for unemployment during unpaid personal leave. She refused and was not scheduled to work thereafter.

Not comparable to injured employees. Granting summary judgment against the employee’s subsequent pregnancy discrimination claim under Title VII as amended by the PDA, the court concluded that, regardless of whether the employee suffered an adverse employment action (the parties disputed whether she abandoned her job), she could not show that she was treated less favorably than non-pregnant individuals. She pointed to three employees who were allowed light duty when they had lifting restrictions, but these were not valid comparators because each of the three suffered on-the-job injuries and the employee did not.

“The PDA does not require an employer to provide special accommodations to its pregnant employees; instead, the PDA only ensures that pregnant employees are given the same opportunities and benefits as nonpregnant employees who are similarly limited in their ability to work,” explained the court. If an employee’s pregnancy prevents her from fulfilling the duties of her position, her employer is not obligated to treat her any differently than it would treat a nonpregnant employee in the same position.

The court distinguished this case from Young v. UPS, explaining that unlike the plaintiff in Young, the employee here did not tender any evidence of non-pregnant employees with lifting restrictions who were assigned to light duty when they were injured outside of work or otherwise unable to perform their job functions. She therefore failed to establish a genuine dispute as to whether the employer provided more favorable treatment to employees whose situation could not reasonably be distinguished from hers. “To hold otherwise,” conclude the court, would afford the employee “an unconditional most-favored-nation status” and run afoul of congressional intent as discerned in Young.