On February 21, 2013 in a case of first impression, the California Court of Appeal in Sanchez v. Swissport, Inc. addressed whether a pregnant worker fired after fully exhausting her statutorily allowed maximum 16 weeks of pregnancy disability leave could assert valid claims against the employer for pregnancy discrimination and failure to accommodate a disability. The court of appeal held “yes”.
In Sanchez, the plaintiff employee informed her employer that she needed a leave of absence spanning from February 2009 through her due date the following October, due to having a high-risk pregnancy requiring bed rest. Swissport provided Sanchez with the full 16 weeks of pregnancy disability leave required under California’s pregnancy disability leave law and allowed her to use an additional three weeks of accrued vacation, bringing the employee’s total leave to 19 weeks. Because Sanchez did not return to work at the end of the 19 weeks in July 2009, Sanchez was fired from her job as a cleaning agent.
Sanchez sued for employment discrimination and failure to accommodate her disability under the Fair Employment and Housing Act. At the trial court level, Swissport was successful in arguing that the case should be dismissed because Sanchez was provided with the maximum leave (16 weeks) required for pregnancy disability in California.
However, the California Court of Appeal felt differently and reinstated Sanchez’s FEHA discrimination case against Swissport. The court held that an employer’s providing of the maximum 16 weeks of leave for pregnancy disability does not automatically protect it from claims for failure to accommodate a disability or for gender/pregnancy discrimination under FEHA. The court reasoned that an extended leave of absence (beyond 16 weeks) may be a “reasonable accommodation” for a disability required under FEHA, and that Swissport may have been required to provide the additional leave time absent a showing of undue hardship.
The clear message of this case of first impression is that an extended leave of absence—in excess of the amount of time allowed under a leave statute—can be a form of a “reasonable accommodation” under California’s disability discrimination laws. While extended leave need not be for an indefinite period of time, an employer is required to consider and provide additional leave of a definite duration unless it would cause an undue hardship for the business.
To read the published decision, click here: