February 25, 2013
By: Christopher P. Wesierski and Roxana Amini
Ana Sanchez was employed as a cleaning agent for Swissport, Inc. from August 2007 to July 14, 2009. Around February 27, 2009, she was diagnosed with a high-risk pregnancy, requiring bedrest until the baby was due, which was October 19, 2009. After she was diagnosed, she requested and received a temporary leave of absence from Swissport. Swissport gave Sanchez the maximum leave they could under the Pregnancy Disability Leave Law (PDDL), which is four months. They also gave her accrued vacation time. On July 14, 2009, almost 5 months after taking pregnancy leave, Sanchez was terminated. Sanchez then sued Swissport, alleging she was fired because of her pregnancy, her pregnancy-related disability and/or her requests for accommodations.
In response to the complaint, Swissport argued that Sanchez was permitted all of the pregnancy leave to which she was entitled, and her employment was terminated only when that leave expired and she was not able to return to work. Based on this, they had satisfied all their obligations under the pregnancy disability statutes. Swissport argued that the PDDL was the exclusive remedy for an employee seeking reasonable accommodation of her pregnancy-related disability. Once the maximum four-month leave period specified in the PDLL expired, an employee was entitled to no other protection under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).
Sanchez filed an opposition, arguing that she was entitled to reasonable accommodations for her pregnancy-related disability under the FEHA, independent of the leave provisions articulated in the PDLL and the California Family Rights Act. She argued she was a disabled employee and was therefore entitled to a reasonable accommodation, which may include leave of no statutorily fixed duration. Courts have held that holding a job open for a disabled employee who needs time to recuperate or heal is in itself a form of reasonable accommodation and may be all that is required where it appears likely that the employee will be able to return to an existing position at some time in the foreseeable future.
The trial court agreed with Swissport and sustained its demurrer, finding that Swissport had provided Sanchez all the pregnancy leave possible under the law. Sanchez then appealed.
The appellate court reversed the trial court’s ruling. The court noted that the remedies provided in the PDLL are “in addition to” those governing pregnancy, childbirth, and pregnancy-related medical conditions set forth in the FEHA.” This includes reasonable accommodation. Thus, the court argued, Swissport did not provide all remedies under the law. Swissport could have given Sanchez four months off under the pregnancy statutes, and reasonable accommodation (in the form of keeping her job open for her) under the disability statutes.
Facts from Sanchez v. Swissport, Inc. 2013 WL 635266 (February 21, 2013).