Leave Beyond What is Required Under Pregnancy Leave Laws May Be A Required Reasonable Accommodation Under FEHA

4.3.13A case of first impression in the California Court of Appeal clarified the rights of pregnant employees under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), explaining that the requirements imposed by other pregnancy leave statutes do not extinguish the obligations imposed by the FEHA, but instead augment them. In Sanchez v. Swissport, Inc., the court concluded that the employee could be discriminated based on a disability arising from her pregnancy even after the employer gave the worker 19 weeks of leave time as required by pregnancy leave laws.

Sanchez’s case arose after her doctors diagnosed her with a high-risk pregnancy and ordered bed rest for the remainder of her pregnancy. Sanchez informed Swissport of her condition and began a period of approved leave from her job. When Sanchez exhausted all of her leave, consisting of both her vacation time and leave time granted by the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) and Pregnancy Disability Leave Law (PDLL), she was still unable to return to work, and Swissport terminated her.

Sanchez sued, alleging her employer, Swissport, violated the FEHA. The employer argued that, since it met the requirements imposed by the CFRA and the PDLL, that meant it also complied with the FEHA. Swissport also argued that it was not obliged to provide further leave even if such an accommodation was available for a nonpregnancy-related disability and even if it would not cause an undue hardship. The employer also alleged that Sanchez was fired because she was unable to work during her high-risk pregnancy. The trial court agreed with the employer and dismissed the case.

The California Court of Appeal disagreed. First, the Court recognized that a high-risk pregnancy, which required a leave of absence, is a disability under FEHA. The Court then concluded that compliance with the CFRA and the PDLL does not eviscerate an employer from complying with the FEHA because the FEHA’s requirements exist in addition to those mandated by the CFRA and the PDLL. The PDLL, the court explained, requires employers to give employees disabled by pregnancy a maximum of four months leave, regardless of the hardship that imposes on the employer. The FEHA, by contrast, requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for disabled employees, including those disabled by pregnancy as long as such accommodations do not pose an undue hardship on the employer. The Court determined that the PDLL’s wording made it clear that its requirements “augment, rather than supplant, those set forth elsewhere in the FEHA.”

To comply with the FEHA, the employer should have undertaken a good faith, interactive process to arrive at a reasonable accommodation of the employee’s disability, as long as that accommodation did not create an undue hardship on the employer, the Court determined.

The Sanchez court has finally resolved the question of what constitutes a permissible reasonable accommodation after the finite leave periods provided by the PDLL and CFRA are exhausted. The Court ruled that a reasonable accommodation maybe as simple as granting an employee an extended period of leave beyond statutorily dictated periods. Of course, this obligation is limited to the extent the employee can return to regular performance of her duties at the end of the leave, and as long as the extended leave does not impose an undue hardship on the employer.

This decision is consistent in light of the updated PDLL regulations, (blogged about in a previous post), which specify that the right to take pregnancy disability leave is separate and distinct from the right to take a leave of absence as a reasonable accommodation under the FEHA. The decision provides a clear warning to employers of their obligations beyond the finite leave periods provided by the PDLL and CFRA. Employers that receive requests for accommodations that exceed the requirements created by the CFRA and the PDLL do not evade liability simply by complying with the CFRA and the PDLL. While the law does not require an employer to undertake an undue hardship in the course of accommodating an employee’s pregnancy-related disability, it does demand that the employer initiate an interaction with the employee to seek a reasonable accommodation, whether that involves additional leave or other means.