Florida employers have been given new guidance on pregnancy discrimination claims
A female was employed as an emergency medical technician (“EMT”). Her job required her to lift 100 pounds regularly. After she became pregnant, her physician advised her to refrain from lifting more than 50 pounds while she was pregnant. The employee asked for a temporary light-duty or dispatcher assignment for the duration of her pregnancy. The employer had provided these same accommodations to other EMTs who had suffered injuries on the job and were restricted to lifting no more than 10 or 20 pounds as a result. On the other hand, the employer had a policy of not granting such accommodations to employees who had been injured off the job. The employer also had a policy that allowed it to accommodate those with disabilities on a case-by-case basis.
The employer declined the employee’s request for accommodation, and the employee filed a lawsuit, alleging discrimination under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”). The employer filed a motion for summary judgment. The federal district court granted the employer’s motion. The employee appealed and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals (controlling in Florida) vacated the lower court’s grant of summary judgment, on the basis that the lower court improperly analyzed the law. Durham v. Rural/Metro Corp., 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 12323, (11th Cir. Apr. 17, 2020).
The lower court determined that the employee did not make her prima-facie-case showing. However the appellate court concluded that the employee did satisfy her prima facie requirement to establish that she was similar to other employees in their ability or inability to work.
Under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, in order for an employee to establish a prima facie case of discrimination, she must show that (1) she is a member of the protected class; (2) she requested accommodation; (3) the employer refused her request; and (4) the employer nonetheless accommodated others “similar in their ability or inability to work.” After the employee satisfies her prima facie burden, the employer may come forward with legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for denying her requested accommodation. The employee then has the opportunity to attempt to demonstrate that the employer’s stated reason is in fact pretextual.
In this case the parties did not dispute that the employee satisfied the first two prongs of her prima facie test. As a pregnant woman, she was obviously part of the class protected by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. And she sought an accommodation from her employer in the form of light-duty or dispatcher work.
As for the third prong—whether the employer refused her request for accommodation—the appellate court concluded that she established that as well. The employer declined to offer her light-duty or dispatcher work. This brings up the fourth prong—whether the employer accommodated others who were not pregnant but were “similar in their ability or inability to work.”
The appellate court explained that in pregnancy discrimination cases, the prima facie case’s fourth prong is different from other types of discrimination cases under Title VII. Specifically, Title VII has a more general comparator analysis, but the pregnancy discrimination act requires that the comparator analysis focuses on a single criterion—one’s ability to do the job.
The appellate court determined that the pregnant employee’s temporary inability to lift more than 50 pounds and her colleagues’ inabilities to lift more than 10 or 20 pounds rendered her, and her colleagues injured on the job, equally unable to perform the 100-pound lifting duties of an EMT. Thus, the pregnant employee and her colleagues who were injured on the job were “similar in their ability or inability to work.”
The appellate court also blasted the employer for not following its own Employee Handbook which left open the possibility that the employer similarly accommodated some of those disabled off the job, including those with resulting lifting restrictions. For these reasons, the appellate court determined that the employee satisfied the fourth prong of her prima facie case.
Because the employee established a prima facie case, the appellate court then turned to the employer’s ostensible legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for refusing to offer the pregnant employee a light duty or a dispatcher position. Here, the employer offered two: its Light-duty Policy applies to only those injured on the job, and the company had no dispatcher positions available at the time the pregnant employee sought accommodation.
The Supreme Court has explained that an employee does enough to survive summary judgment if she shows both that the employer’s policies impose a significant burden on pregnant workers and that the employer’s legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons are not sufficiently strong to justify the burden, but rather—when considered along with the burden imposed—give rise to an inference of intentional discrimination.
In this case, the lower court never reached this part of the analysis because it stopped after determining that the pregnant employee had failed to establish a prima facie case. The appellate court ruled that this was error.
Because the lower court never considered whether the employee presented enough evidence to create a genuine dispute of fact over whether the employer’s reasons for refusing to provide her with a light-duty or dispatcher position were pretextual, the appellate court remanded this case to the lower court for a determination of this.
This recent court ruling provides Florida employers with guidance on how to properly perform a comparator analysis when the situation involves a possible claim of pregnancy discrimination, which is different from other types of discrimination claims.
If you own a Florida business and you have questions about pregnancy discrimination or retaliation, you may email the Law Office of David Miklas, P.A. for a consultation or you can call David Miklas at 1-772-465-5111 to discuss sexual discrimination or retaliation issues in Florida.
You can read more of our employment law articles on our legal updates page.
If you know a Florida business owner or Florida human resources professional who would find this article interesting, you can easily share it with one click to social media or email.