A nursing home’s policy of accommodating only restrictions from work-related incidents could be pretext for pregnancy discrimination, a federal appeals court ruled, reversing summary judgment in favor of the nursing home.  Jennifer Latowski v. Northwoods Nursing Center, No. 12-2408 (6th Cir. Dec. 23, 2013).

After learning that a nursing assistant was pregnant, the nursing home requested that she provide a doctor’s note stating she had no employment restrictions.  The nursing home terminated her employment after her doctor faxed a note stating that her only restriction was no lifting over 50 pounds.  The basis for the termination was the nursing home’s policy to accommodate only those restrictions resulting from work-related incidents.

After her termination, the nursing assistant filed a charge with the EEOC and later brought suit in federal district court alleging violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), and related state claims.  The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the nursing home on all claims.

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit reversed the grant of summary judgment on the pregnancy discrimination claims.  In support of its decision, the Sixth Circuit found the nursing assistant established a prima facie case of pregnancy discrimination and noted that a reasonable jury “could easily conclude” the nursing home’s decision to “implement a policy terminating otherwise qualified workers whose doctors imposed any restrictions arising from non-workplace injuries, even if those restrictions do not limit the employees’ ability to competently perform their jobs — is so lacking in merit as to be a pretext for discrimination.” 

In addition to the policy, the Sixth Circuit considered statements by nursing home administrators regarding their concerns that by continuing to work the nursing assistant would jeopardize her health and that of her child and that her “belly would be in the way.”  The Court found these comments raised the inference that the policy was merely pretext for discriminatory animus against pregnant women. 

While it remanded the pregnancy discrimination claims to the district court, the Sixth Circuit upheld the grant of summary judgment on the other claims.  It found no evidence that the employer regarded the nursing assistant as disabled and found that the FMLA claim was not ripe and could not be proven because the nursing assistant did not request FMLA leave before her termination. 

This case highlights the importance of having counsel review workplace policies regarding leaves of absence, accommodations, and light duty, as well as training managers on their obligations under the state and federal employment laws.