An appeals court has ruled that a medical technician presented a prima facie case of pregnancy discrimination with her wrongful termination suit over her refusal to climb a ladder to wash windows after being diagnosed with a high-risk pregnancy.
A panel of the Superior Court of New Jersey’s Appellate Division reinstated her suit after rejecting the defendants’ arguments that insubordination was a legitimate reason for her firing and that she has no claim for discrimination because she did not request an accommodation.
Sandra Roopchand worked for Drs. Richard Schaller and Robert Fallon in 2013 and 2014. Her duties included cleaning examining rooms but not washing windows. In July 29, 2014, she told Schaller she was pregnant, and later she notified him that her pregnancy was high-risk and that she had to see her doctor weekly. On the same day, she overheard Schaller telling Fallon in hushed tones, “I don’t care, she’s a liability.” Later, Fallon asked her to clean some floor-to-ceiling windows, but she said, “I don’t do windows.” At 5 foot 2 inches, she would have needed a ladder to do the job. He asked her two more times, and she refused again, so he fired her.
Superior Court Judge Thomas Walsh, in Union County, had dismissed the case, finding insubordination to have been a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for Roopchand’s firing, and rejected the plaintiff’s claim that it was a pretext for termination. He also rejected Roopchand’s discrimination claim based on her failure to seek an accommodation. He also noted that, although she alleged that her pregnancy was high-risk due to hypothyroidism, she was not under any work restrictions.
But on appeal, Judges Susan Reisner, Ellen Koblitz and Jessica Mayer said that under a 2014 amendment to the Law Against Discrimination to include pregnancy as a protected characteristic, Roopchand made out a prima facie case for disparate treatment under the 2014 amendment because she was part of a protected class of pregnant workers and her employer knew of her pregnancy; she was performing her work duties; she suffered the adverse employment action of being ordered to wash windows, and then fired; and she was required to perform an act outside her job description, that other, nonpregnant workers were not required to perform, thus raising an inference of unlawful discrimination.
Regardless of whether her request to visit her doctor weekly is viewed as a pregnancy accommodation, the plaintiff demonstrated sufficient evidence of pregnancy discrimination to survive summary judgment, the panel said in an unsigned opinion.
Emanuel Fish, the Maplewood attorney who represented Roopchand, said the ruling was notable because reversals on appeal of summary judgment are rare and because the facts clearly showed his client was targeted because of her condition.
Joshua Weiner of Budd Larner in Millburn, who represented the defendant medical clinic, said he was “disappointed in the decision. We strongly believe the trial judge got it exactly correct. Unfortunately the Appellate Division gave short shrift to our argument.” The case is expected to go to trial in the fall, Weiner said.
The decision in Roopchand v. Complete Care came in an unpublished opinion of the court.