Plaintiff May Press Pregnancy Discrimination Claims Against Non-Profit Women in Need Inc.

In Briggs v. Women in Need, Inc, 819 F.Supp.2d 119 (2011), the court denied defendant’s FRCP 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss plaintiff’s complaint alleging discrimination under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) by her nonprofit employer.

The Facts

Plaintiff advised her employer of her pregnancy in March 2007, went on medical leave due to her high-risk pregnancy on May 23, 2007, and gave birth by cesarean section on October 19, 2007.   Shortly before or during plaintiff’s medical leave, an HR representative advised plaintiff that upon plaintiff’s return, she would be allowed to work a shift that plaintiff believed would accommodate her needs as a new mother.  However, upon her return from medical leave plaintiff was denied that shift and terminated.

The Law

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination “because of … sex”, and the PDA states that this extends to discrimination “because or on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions” and that “women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes . . . as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work”.   An employment practice runs afoul of the PDA if pregnancy is “a motivating factor” for an adverse employment action.

In satisfaction of her prima facie case, plaintiff was required to show:  (1) membership in a protected class; (2) that she was qualified for her position; (3) that she suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) that there exists a nexus between the pregnancy and the adverse employment action.  (It was undisputed that plaintiff suffered an “adverse employment action”.)

Prima Facie Element 1:  Plaintiff Was In the PDA’s Protected Class. 

Under the PDA,

a plaintiff must show that her discharge occurred while she was ‘affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.’  … [The PDA] covers not only pregnancy, but also childbirth and related medical conditions.  … One need not be pregnant at the time of termination to be a member of the PDA’s protected class; rather, this determination is made on a case by case basis. … Courts have found that an employee terminated while pregnant, on maternity leave, or soon after returning from maternity leave, is a member of the protected class. … The time at which the plaintiff ceases being ‘affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions’ depends on the facts and circumstances of the particular case.

Here, plaintiff alleged sufficient facts to demonstrate that she was a member of the PDA’s protected class, since

at most the termination occurred three months after the birth of her child, and most likely occurred while she was recovering from her cesarean section, a medical condition related to her pregnancy. Thus even though plaintiff was not pregnant at the time of her termination, there is sufficiently close temporal proximity between her childbirth and related medical condition and her termination to make her a member of the [PDA’s] protected class.

Prima Facie Element 2:  Plaintiff Was Qualified For Her Position.

As to this element, “plaintiff need make only a minimal showing of qualification, that is, that she possesses the basic skills necessary for performance of [the] job. … The employee need not show that she was a perfect or even an average employee”.

Plaintiff pleaded sufficient facts to meet the minimal showing that she was qualified for her position.  Defendant argued that plaintiff was “unqualified for her position since she refused to work her assigned schedule.”  The court flatly rejected this argument, since “plaintiff’s complaint alleges that she was terminated on December 11, 2007” and “her failure to report to work a month after her termination does not show that she was unqualified.”

Prima Facie Element 4:  Plaintiff Sufficiently Raised An Inference Of Discrimination. 

This element

requires showing ‘either that plaintiff’s position was filled by a non-pregnant employee or that the plaintiff’s discharge occurred under circumstances that give rise to an inference of discrimination.’ … A plaintiff may satisfy th[is] element by demonstrating that the position remained open after her discharge and was filled by a non-pregnant employee. … However, when the position is filled by a non-pregnant employee who nevertheless falls into the PDA’s protected class due to being ‘affected by childbirth or related medical conditions,’ an inference of discrimination does not arise. … To raise an inference of discrimination ‘the PDA does not require that the termination occur during the pregnancy.’ … Rather, the [PDA] is meant to protect against discrimination ‘before, during, and after [a woman’s] pregnancy.’ … Temporal proximity between the plaintiff’s termination and her pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical condition can raise an inference of discrimination. … However, … an inference of discrimination arises from temporal proximity between the plaintiff’s termination and the announcement of her pregnancy or her request for maternity leave only when accompanied by other circumstantial evidence.

Here, taking plaintiff’s allegations as true and drawing all reasonable inferences in her favor, the court found that plaintiff adequately alleged facts to raise an inference of discrimination:

Plaintiff’s complaint clearly shows a close temporal proximity between her pregnancy and three key events: the denial of her desired shift, denial of a transfer, and her termination. Plaintiff alleges that she had been out on documented medical disability due to her high-risk pregnancy, medically-complicated birth, and continuing medical issues relating to her recovery. Throughout her leave, plaintiff kept in close touch with [defendant]’s human resources department, and explicitly and repeatedly indicated that she sought the day shift as a reasonable accommodation following her difficult pregnancy. On December 11, 2007, Plaintiff was certified by her doctor to return to work on or about January 21, 2008 and she provided that documentation to [defendant].  Instead, she was terminated, effective that very same day, without ever receiving a notice of termination. Upon learning of her termination, plaintiff asked to be reinstated and transferred to another location; both requests were denied.

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