SAN FRANCISCO — Pregnant employees can sue for discrimination even if their employer provided all four months’ leave guaranteed by California’s Pregnancy Disability Leave Law, the Second District Court of Appeal ruled Friday.
The four months are not a "cap," the court held, because other provisions of California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act require reasonable accommodation for disabilities, including a pregnancy that makes it impossible to do one’s job.
"By its terms, the [Pregnancy Disability Leave Law] provides that its remedies are ‘in addition to’ those governing pregnancy, childbirth and pregnancy-related medical conditions set forth in the FEHA," Justice Nora Manella wrote for a unanimous panel in Sanchez v. Swissport.
The ruling reinstated a suit against cargo company Swissport, which terminated cleaning agent Ana Fuentes Sanchez when she couldn’t return to work after four months’ leave for a high-risk pregnancy.
"The pregnancy disability statutes and regulations are clear: Pregnancy disability leave is capped at four months," the company’s lawyers wrote in their briefs. "Sanchez was permitted all of the pregnancy leave to which she was entitled, and her employment was terminated only when that leave expired and she was not able to return to work."
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Teresa Sanchez-Gordon agreed and dismissed Sanchez’s case, saying the termination was "expressly permitted" under the Pregnancy Disability Leave Law.
True, said Manella, the pregnancy law does say that employees are entitled to "leave for a reasonable period of time not to exceed four months." But the pregnancy law, which is part of the broader FEHA, also states, "This section shall not be construed to affect any other provision of law relating to sex discrimination or pregnancy."
"We conclude that Swissport’s proposed construction is contradicted by the plain language of the [pregnancy law], which makes clear that its remedies augment, rather than supplant, those set forth elsewhere in the FEHA," wrote Manella, who as joined by Justices Thomas Willhite Jr. and Steven Suzukawa.
"As the case law makes clear," she added, "disability leave may in some circumstances exceed four months" if it does not impose an undue burden on the employer.
Livingston Bakhtiar and Shegerian & Associates represented Sanchez. Patrick Cain of Rodi Pollock Pettker Christian & Pramov represented Swissport.
Seyfarth Shaw partner Laura Maechtlen, who is not involved in the case, said the ruling was not entirely surprising in the context of California’s broad disability laws, though it could have caught some HR professionals off guard, particularly those who manage California employees from out of state.
Maechtlen said she did not see the ruling as a game changer, because most pregnancies don’t require more than four months’ leave. In Sanchez’s case, her high-risk pregnancy required eight months’ bed rest.
But, along with new pregnancy and disability leave regulations just issued by the Department of Fair Housing in December, HR professionals have plenty of new leave law to keep track of. "It’s already hard enough," she said.