HR Management & Compliance

10th Circuit: Employers Must Accommodate Pregnant Employees Who Have Restrictions

A recent ruling by the 10th Circuit—which covers Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming—reminds employers that they must treat pregnant employees with health conditions or work limitations in the same manner as other employees with similar conditions or limitations.Wyoming

Employee Can’t Perform Essential Job Requirement

“Rose” worked as an operator at a fertilizer plant owned by Simplot in Rock Springs, Wyoming. Operators were required to be able to lift at least 50 pounds. Also, they likely would be exposed to various industrial chemicals, dirt, dust, gases, fumes, and odors throughout the workday.

In the fall of 2013, Rose began fertility treatments and asked to be transferred to a job that was less physically demanding than her operator position. She provided Simplot a doctor’s note imposing a lifting restriction and recommending that she be placed on light duty until December 3, 2013. Because Simplot had only a few office positions, it accommodated Rose’s lifting restriction by assigning her to operate a switch engine for 2 weeks.

In December 2013, Rose learned she was pregnant and notified her supervisor. Her supervisor said he could no longer accommodate her lifting restriction and referred her to HR. Rose was given the operator job description and a chemical data sheet to review with her doctor.

Simplot received several letters from Rose’s doctor:

  • A December 12, 2013, letter stating Rose could not be exposed to three of the chemicals on Simplot’s list;
  • A December 16, 2013, letter explaining that while the three chemicals had not scientifically been proven to cause harm, the doctor nevertheless recommended limiting Rose’s exposure by allowing her to work in the office;
  • A January 31, 2014, letter reiterating the previous letters and stating Rose was able to perform the essential functions of an unspecified job, with a description for an administrative job attached; and
  • A February 28, 2014, letter stating Rose could return to her operator position.

After the last letter, Rose was permitted to return to work.

Rose filed suit, claiming, among other things, disparate treatment in violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA). Her claim was based on the time she was not working—from December 12, 2013, to February 28, 2014—when the employer could not satisfy her restrictions. After the district court ruled in favor of Simplot, Rose appealed to the 10th Circuit.

Appeals Court Rules in Favor of Employer

Remember, under the PDA, pregnancy-related medical conditions must be treated the same as other medical or health conditions. In response to Rose’s accusation of pregnancy discrimination, Simplot offered a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for refusing to allow her to return to work: It did not have an available position that met the restrictions imposed by her doctor. The employer reasonably believed that all its administrative and office positions involved exposure to the harmful chemicals.

Moreover, Simplot was able to show that Rose was different from other employees whose lifting restrictions it had previously accommodated because she was also restricted from being exposed to certain chemicals. Therefore, she was not similarly situated to male employees whose lifting restrictions Simplot accommodated with light duty. Jackson v. J.R. Simplot Co., No. 16-8044 (10th Cir., Dec. 15, 2016).

Lessons Learned

Employers must treat women affected by pregnancy the same as other employees who have restrictions on their work activities. If you have the ability to accommodate nonpregnant employees with a health-related restriction, you must also accommodate pregnant employees with similar restrictions. However, you are not required to provide special accommodations to a pregnant employee if you would treat a nonpregnant employee with similar restrictions in the same manner.