Required Extension of Statutory Pregnancy Leave as a Reasonable Accommodation

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In a case of first impression, the Second Appellate District in California, recently took an expansive view of pregnancy leave rights for employees. Under California’s Pregnancy Disability Leave Law (“PDLL”), employees disabled by pregnancy are entitled to up to four months of job-protected leave. Under the California Family Rights Act (“CFRA”), employees may take leave up to 12 weeks for baby bonding. CFRA, however, does not include pregnancy disability as a “serious health condition,” which means that employees cannot begin to use their CFRA leave until after the child is born. Pregnant employees who need additional leave beyond the four months provided by the PDLL, but before their CFRA leave begins, are now explicitly protected by the Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”).

In Sanchez v. Swissport, Inc., the employee worked for Swissport as a cleaning agent for one and a half years, at which point she was diagnosed with a high-risk pregnancy that required bed rest for approximately eight months. After the expiration of her four months of PDLL leave, and before she had given birth, her employment was terminated. She filed a complaint for discrimination on the basis of gender, pregnancy, pregnancy-related disability, failure to accommodate disability and engage in the integrative process, and other related claims. The lower level court dismissed her complaint on demurrer, agreeing with the employer that it had provided all the statutorily required leave under the PDLL and CFRA, and that no further accommodation was required under the FEHA.

The Appellate Court overturned the dismissal and held that under the FEHA, a woman disabled by pregnancy is entitled to the protections given to any other disabled employee—a reasonable accommodation that does not impose an undue hardship on the employer. Therefore, a finite leave of more than four months may be a reasonable accommodation for a known pregnancy disability under the FEHA. Because disability leave can reasonably exceed four months, the court held that Sanchez successfully pled her claims for discrimination and failure to accommodate. In particular, the court noted that the plain language of the PDLL and its regulations shows that it merely augments, and does not displace, the other provisions of the FEHA that might be applicable to pregnancy-related disability or medical condition.

Therefore, employers should continue to engage in the interactive process for all disabled employees, including those disabled by pregnancy. Employers should now be aware that employees disabled by pregnancy could be entitled to leave beyond the statutory four months provided by the PDLL until they recover from childbirth, unless the employer can show the requested leave would be an undue hardship to the company.