Sunday, March 3, 2013

Pregnancy and Disability--Some Useful Guidance

Here's a nice opinion that lays out some factors to consider in one of the more confusing types of discrimination claims--disability claims.  These claims have increased under the amendments to the ADA, so it's helpful when a court does a nice job of delineating the requirements as in this opinion.

Plaintiff was a resident for a hospital.  She experienced a very difficult pregnancy that resulted in the death of one of her unborn twins.  After she delivered the remaining baby, she had complications that resulted in her requiring physical therapy.  On her doctor's insistence, the hospital allowed her an eight week maternity leave.  On her return, plaintiff was placed under the supervision of a physician with whom she had previous difficulties.  Less than two weeks after she returned, she was placed on probation for her work performance.  The hospital ultimately elected not to renew her employment contract. For some inexplicable reason, the hospital OB/GYN Program director indicated that the plaintiff was terminated from the program because of her "medically complicated pregnancy" and concerns about her academic work.  Unsurprisingly, she sued, alleging Title VII claims for gender and national origin, retaliation, and claims under the ADA for being disabled and being regarded as disabled.

The hospital moved to dismiss her claims, stating that her claims of pregnancy-related problems did not rise to the level of a disability under Seventh Circuit precedent.  But using the greatly expanded language of the ADA amendments, the court easily found that the problems the plaintiff alleged  (which extended for some eight months and passed the end of her pregnancy) were sufficient to establish a disability claim.  As for her perceived impairments claim, which affected plaintiff on her return to work, she had to allege that her termination was caused by this perception.  Because it was clear from the statement of the hospital that plaintiff was terminated as much because of her academic work, the court determined that this claim failed, and granted the hospital's motion to dismiss.

What are the takeaways here?  For one thing, be prepared to talk cogently about why you are letting someone go.  In this case, the hospital had to recognize that it was dealing with a potential problem; it should have planned accordingly and not put a returning mother on probation within two weeks of coming back to work.  And don't reference protected factors in your termination paperwork.  Stick to comments about work performance and related factors--that should be the only reason for the decision.

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