Court Finds Pregnant Employee Not Qualified to Perform Her Job

Pregnancy Discrimination
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Should judges be required to offer a reasonable accommodation of rescheduling for pregnant lawyers?If you’re experiencing a pregnancy with complications, you may be unable to perform the substantive responsibilities of your job. In such situations, you may be considered “disabled” and receive discrimination protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).

But, depending on the facts of your employment situation, your employer may legally refuse to accommodate your condition and even fire you. How can this be? Read the following case to find out.

Kimberly Agee v. Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, Inc.

Kimberly Agee started working in an assembly plant for Mercedes-Benz in 2005. As a regular and essential part of her job, Agee had to be able to work a flexible schedule as well as work overtime hours.

In 2009, Agee took a leave of absence due to breast cancer. Agee returned to work in 2010, but in 2012, as a result of her breast cancer treatments, Agee could not lift more than 15 pounds. Mercedes accommodated Agee’s lifting restriction by allowing her to work in other areas of the assembly plant.

In April 2012, Agee became pregnant. Agee’s doctor gave her a note stating she was not to work more than 40 hours per week. This note did not explain why or how long this restriction was to be in place. Mercedes asked for this information so it could find another job for Agee, but Agee did not provide the additional information.

In May 2012, Mercedes put Agee on unpaid family leave. Mercedes told Agee that her 40-hour-per-week restriction could be met, but only if she filled out her family medical leave paperwork. Mercedes explained that because of the need for Agee to be able to work overtime and work a flexible schedule, the accommodation would only last for the duration of her pregnancy. Lastly, Mercedes said that the family leave paperwork had to be returned by May 25, 2012; otherwise, Agee would be considered absent from work.

On June 20, 2012, Mercedes again contacted Agee, asking that she either clarify her restriction and provide the family leave paperwork or return to work on June 25, 2012. Mercedes warned that if Agee did neither, she would be fired. On June 22, 2012, Agee said only that she was not asking for family leave and that she was not refusing to work. On June 26, 2012, Agee was fired.

Agee sued Mercedes in federal court, alleging discrimination in violation of the ADA. The district court ruled in favor of Mercedes, finding no ADA violation. Agee appealed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which confirmed the district court’s ruling. At both the district and circuit court, the primary issue was whether Agee was a qualified individual under the ADA.

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Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990

The ADA makes it illegal for an employer to discriminate against a qualified individual based on an employee’s disability. The ADA also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for the employee’s disability.

A qualified individual is an employee who is capable of performing the necessary tasks of his or her job, regardless of whether the employee receives reasonable accommodations.

A disability is “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Courts and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) have concluded that pregnancy complications can constitute a disability under the ADA.

Reasonable accommodations are changes made by an employer to enable a qualified individual to complete his or her job tasks.

During litigation, Mercedes argued that Agee’s inability to work overtime hours meant she should not be considered a qualified individual under the ADA. Based on the evidence submitted, both the district and circuit courts agreed that Mercedes needed assembly plant workers to be able to work extra hours when needed due to unforeseen circumstances and that this ability was essential to the performance of Agee’s job.

Agee’s case wasn’t helped by the fact that she did not comply with her employer’s requests that she fill out the family leave paperwork or explain why and how long the 40-hour-per-week restriction would be in place.

For more information about the ADA and pregnancy discrimination, please read “Facts About the Americans with Disability Act” on the EEOC’s website and a few of our prior blog posts, such as “Pregnancy Discrimination: Potential New Rules and EEOC Guidance” and “Are Employers Required to Accommodate Pregnant Employees?

Summing It Up

  • Depending on the job, working overtime can be considered an essential function of that job.
  • If a job requires a disabled employee to work overtime hours, and the disabled employee is unable to work those overtime hours, then the employee may not be a “qualified individual” under the ADA.
  • Pregnancy complications can fall under ADA disability protections.
  • When requesting reasonable accommodations, disabled employees must make a good faith effort to comply with their employer’s reasonable and relevant requests for cooperation.