Takeaways from recent pregnancy discrimination cases brought against Iowa employers

 Iowa Employment & Labor Law Dickinson Law Firm Des Moines Iowa

Posted on 05/20/2010 at 02:09 PM by The Newsroom

In Elam v. Regions Financial Corporation, et al. (April 19, 2010), the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a pregnancy discrimination case brought under federal and state laws.  Elam was a senior bank teller in Regions West Des Moines branch. She started experiencing morning sickness, causing her to abandon her teller station four to eleven times each morning.  Elam’s doctor recommended that she be allowed to keep a beverage at her station and be excused from work as necessary to deal with her sickness.  Regions accommodated Elam by allowing her to have a beverage at her station and offered her the opportunity to come to work each day after her morning sickness subsided.  Elam rejected the latter accommodation.  Elam continued to experience problems caused by the morning sickness and had to abandon her teller station in the middle of a transaction with a customer.  Whenever Elam had to leave, other tellers had to stop performing their work to cover Elam’s station. Elam also had additional job performance issues – failing to secure a cash drawer, leaving cash unattended on the counter of her station, laying her head on the counter at her station – all of which were attributed to the morning sickness.  Further, she used her cell phone at work and failed to document customer transactions.  Elam was disciplined for these issues, yet the employer again offered to allow her to report to work late after the morning sickness subsided and asked her to see if her doctor could suggest any other accommodations to help avoid the frequent work interruptions.  Elam provided no other ideas for accommodations.  Elam was then late for a mandatory training meeting and was terminated. In upholding the dismissal of Elam’s claims, the court noted that she presented no evidence that nonpregnant employees were allowed to leave their work stations abruptly at frequent intervals every morning.  The court found that Elam was arguing that her employer discriminated against her by refusing to give her special treatment.  The court also found that the employer provided a “lengthy list” of nondiscriminatory legitimate reasons for the termination.  Elam argued that two other employees had committed the same infractions, making the legitimate reason for her termination pretextual (concealing the true discriminatory reason).  The court noted that two other employees had committed two of the same acts, but these acts were not comparable to Elam’s “record of numerous other acts of misconduct.”  As such, these employees were not similarly situated, therefore providing no evidence of discriminatory differential treatment.  Additionally, plaintiff’s counsel presented no evidence that the decision-makers in her termination were aware of the alleged misconduct of these other employees. In Ash v. Burim Aliu d/b/a Riverside Family Restaurant (January 22, 2010), the Iowa Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of a pregnancy discrimination case brought by a former waitress against her prior employer.  Ms. Ash alleged that the restaurant made her stop working when she was six months pregnant and then failed to bring her back after she had the baby.  The restaurant alleged that she was not laid off and that Ash had quit.  Further, the restaurant did not want to re-hire her based upon poor performance (leaving shifts early and arguing with customers, co-workers and managers).  The employer noted that Ash “got mad” and left the restaurant after being reprimanded on the performance issues and never returned.  The evidence showed that Ash was scheduled to work after this date but never appeared for work again until after the child was born.  The employer also provided evidence that several other pregnant women had worked for the restaurant and returned after the birth of their children. After the birth of her child, Ash attempted to return to work.  The restaurant did not re-hire her, claiming she had quit and had performance issues.  The court found this was a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for not rehiring Ash. What These Cases Mean for Iowa Employers Pregnancy Does Not Require “Special Treatment.” In Elam, the court emphasized that Title VII, as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), provides that pregnant women must “be treated the same for all employment-related purposes . . . as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work,” and the PDA “does not create substantive rights to preferential treatment.” Unemployment Hearings. A key point for Iowa employers in the Ash case is that much of the important evidence reviewed by the district court and appellate court was taken from the unemployment hearing in front of Iowa Workforce Development.  Iowa employers should be aware that testimony provided in unemployment hearings is under oath and can be used in later proceedings.  This sword cuts both ways, as testimony that former employees give in these same hearings is under oath and can also be used.  This case demonstrates the importance of having an employment lawyer provide guidance early on—even before unemployment benefits hearings—in termination situations in which liability issues might arise.

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