The City of Florence (“Florence” or “the City”) recently entered into a proposed consent decree, pending court approval, to resolve a discrimination lawsuit the Justice Department filed regarding two City female police officers. The lawsuit, filed last month, alleges both officers were discriminated against based on pregnancy and disability grounds pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title I of the American with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). According to the complaint, Florence female police officers Lyndi Trischler and Samantha Riley requested light duty in 2014 when both were unable to perform their duties as patrol officers due to their pregnancies. Officer Trischler also suffered from complications resulting from a diagnosed high-risk pregnancy and requested light duty as a reasonable accommodation.
Florence’s light duty policy at the time of Ms. Trischler’s and Ms. Riley’s requests was limited to employees with on-the-job injuries only. The City also required that employees with non-work related illnesses, injuries, or conditions provide information that establishes they have “no restrictions” prior to returning to work. Florence denied both officers’ requests and required them to take leave instead.
This was the first lawsuit filed by the Justice Department challenging an entity’s light duty policy following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in last year’s Young v. UPS case. In Young, UPS had a similar ‘employees injured on the job’ policy as Florence. Peggy Young was a UPS pickup and delivery driver who became pregnant, suffered complications, and had a prescribed lifting restriction from her doctor. UPS denied it and Young – like officers Trischler and Riley – was placed on leave. The Supreme Court concluded that the disparate treatment of UPS’s policy regarding lifting restrictions on pregnant workers imposes a “significant burden” and that UPS did not provide a “sufficiently strong” reason to justify that burden.
The Justice Department obviously viewed Florence’s light duty policy, and its effect on pregnant women, in the same vein of the outcome and majority analysis in the Young case. As such, the City concluded that instead of being engaged in protracted litigation, it would rather enter into a consent decree to settle. Under the consent decree, Florence agrees to, among other things: 1) adopt new policies that allow for accommodations (including light duty) for pregnant and disabled employees; 2) establish an effective process for receiving and responding to employee accommodation requests and discrimination complaints; 3) ensure the proper maintenance of employee medical records; and 4) provide training to supervisors, administrators, officers, and employees who participate in making personnel decisions regarding light duty and accommodation requests. The City also agreed to pay $135,000 in compensatory damages and attorney fees, as well as restore both Trischler’s and Riley’s paid leave.
The Young case will continue to be a ‘guide post’ for courts and administrative agencies (state and federal) to be referenced or cited going forward in determining whether or not a company’s policies potentially ‘single out’ a certain class of employees over another in pursuit of reasonable accommodations – particularly as those policies apply to pregnant women and/or pregnant women with medically diagnosed complications. To potentially minimize your company’s risk exposure, the following are suggested best practices to consider:
- Ensure that light duty policies that apply to certain categories of employees, such as those with on-the-job injuries, apply equally to pregnant women employees as well.
- Take a good look at your current workplace policies to ensure compliance with both the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act’s mandates to provide accommodations to pregnant women. Employers in cities and states that have pregnancy accommodation laws will need to ensure compliance with those laws – which often are more expansive and stringent.
- Employers should review their policies to ensure pregnant women are treated as similarly as other employees with respect to approval and/or denial of: reasonable accommodation requests, leave, flex scheduling, attendance, intermittent leave, etc.
- Amend existing policies and procedures to include accommodations on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions (including lactation).
- Establish procedures for determining what accommodations are reasonable.
- Train supervisors on how to recognize and respond to a pregnant employee’s accommodation request.
Now may be the ideal time for your company to discuss such policies and best practices with your in-house counsel legal advisors. In the long run, it will be money well spent!