Court rules employer not able to accommodate pregnant employee

A recent ruling by the federal appeals court that covers Oklahoma reminds employers that they must treat pregnant employees with health conditions or work limitations the same as any other employee with health conditions or work limitations.

Pregnant employee can’t perform essential job requirement

Stacey Jackson worked as an operator at a fertilizer plant owned by Simplot in Rock Springs, Wyoming. As part of the job requirements, operators were required to lift at least 50 pounds. Operators also were likely to be exposed to various industrial chemicals, dirt, dust, gases, fumes, and odors throughout their workday.

In the fall of 2013, Jackson began fertility treatments and requested to be transferred to a job that was less physically demanding than her job as operator. Jackson submitted to Simplot a doctor’s note that imposed a lifting restriction and recommended she be placed on light duty until December 3, 2013. Because Simplot had only a few office positions, the employer accommodated Jackson’s lifting restriction by temporarily assigning her to operate a switch engine for two weeks.

In December 2013, Jackson learned she was pregnant and notified her supervisor. Her supervisor told Jackson that he could no longer accommodate her lifting restriction and referred her to the human resources department. Jackson was provided with the operator job description and a chemical data sheet for her to review with the doctor.

Simplot then received the following letters from Jackson’s doctor:

  • December 12, 2013: Jackson could not be exposed to three of the chemicals contained on Simplot’s list.
  • December 16, 2013: The doctor explained that while the three chemicals had not scientifically been proven to cause harm, he nevertheless recommended limiting her exposure to any chemicals by allowing her to work in the office.
  • January 31, 2014: The doctor reiterated the past letters, but also stated that Jackson would be able to perform the essential functions of an unspecified job, with an administrative job description attached.
  • February 28, 2014: The doctor stated that Jackson could return to her position as operator. At that point, Jackson was permitted to return to work.

Jackson filed suit claiming disparate treatment in violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), among other claims. Jackson’s PDA claim was based on the time she was not working at Simplot – from December 12, 2013 to February 28, 2014 – when the employer could not satisfy her doctor’s restriction.

Appeals court rules in favor of employer

After the district court ruled in favor of Simplot, Jackson appealed to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. Remember: Under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, pregnancy-related medical conditions must be treated the same as any other medical or health-related conditions.

In response to Jackson’s accusation of pregnancy discrimination, Simplot offered a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for refusing to allow Jackson back to work: Simplot did not have an available position that could meet the chemical restriction imposed by Jackson’s doctor. The employer reasonably believed that all administrative and office positions were similarly exposed to the harmful chemicals.

Moreover, Simplot was able to show the court that Jackson was different from other employees accommodated for a similar lifting restriction due to her additional limitation of chemical exposure. Therefore, Jackson was not similarly situated to male employees whom Simplot had accommodated with light duty due to their lifting restrictions.

Lessons learned

Employers must treat women affected by pregnancy the same as other employees who have health limitations on their work activities. If an employer has the ability to accommodate a non-pregnant employee with a health restriction, the employer must also accommodate a pregnant employee with a similar restriction. However, an employer is not required to provide special accommodations to a pregnant employee if it would treat a non-pregnant employee with similar health restriction in the same manner.

Jackson v. J.R. Simplot Co., No. 16-8044 (10th Cir. Dec. 15, 2016).