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The California Court of Appeal‘s decision in Sanchez v. Swissport, Inc., is of great importance, effecting the rights of employees with pregnancy-related disabilities. As a result of the decision, employers may be required to provide an employee with additional leave to that required under California’s Pregnancy Disability Leave Law (PDLL) and the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) as a reasonable accommodation of a pregnancy-related disability under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).
FACTS OF THE CASE
Ana Sanchez was employed as a cleaning agent for Swissport, Inc. After becoming pregnant, Ms. Sanchez was diagnosed with a high-risk pregnancy and placed on bed rest for the reminder of her pregnancy. Ms. Sanchez went on approved leave using her accrued vacation time and available leave under the PDLL and CFRA. However, at the end of the approved leave, Ms. Sanchez was unable to return to work and requested an extended leave of absence throughout the remainder of her pregnancy. Swissport refused to approve the requested additional leave and terminated Ms. Sanchez’s employment.
Ms. Sanchez sued Swissport for, among other things, pregnancy and pregnancy-related disability discrimination, as well as failure to accommodate and engage in the interactive process. Swissport asked the trial court to dismiss the case, arguing that pregnancy disability laws expressly capped leave at four months. It stated that Ms. Sanchez was permitted all of the pregnancy leave to which she was entitled to under PDLL, and that her employment was only terminated after her leave expired and she was unable to return to work. Swissport then concluded that Ms. Sanchez was not entitled to any other protection under the FEHA. The trial court dismissed the case, agreeing with Swissport. However, Ms, Sanchez appealed the dismissal.
PREGNANCY DISABILITY LEAVE VS. PREGNANCY DISABILITY DISCRIMINATION
In short, the appellate court found that the trial court had erred, finding instead that Ms. Sanchez could pursue her complaint. The court stated that Swissport’s position was “contradicted by the plain language of the PDLL,” which expressly states that its remedies “augment, rather than supplant, those set forth elsewhere in the FEHA”. An employee disabled by pregnancy is entitled up to four months of pregnancy disability leave regardless of any hardship to the employer. As a separate matter, however, the requirement to reasonably accommodate an employee disabled by pregnancy is a separate obligation under the FEHA. Continuing a leave of absence may be a possible reasonable accommodation, provided it does not impose an undue hardship on the employer. Swissport, therefore, had an obligation to engage in the interactive process with Ms. Sanchez to establish whether additional leave was a reasonable accommodation or whether it would impose an undue hardship on Swissport.
Employees should note that employers will no longer be able to terminate the employment of an employee disabled by pregnancy or pregnancy-related conditions immediately after the expiration of the express four month statutory leave. As the ruling in Sanchez holds, an employer must enter an interactive discussion with the employee to determine whether extending the employee’s leave is a reasonable accommodation, whether other types of reasonable accommodation are available, or if further accommodation creates an undue burden.