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February 2018

Hospital Settles Pregnancy Discrimination Case Involving Light Duty

Recently, a North Dakota hospital agreed to pay $95,000 to settle a discrimination lawsuit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). According to the EEOC, the hospital refused to provide light duty work to a pregnant nurse with lifting restrictions because of a pregnancy-related health condition, and fired her instead. The hospital, however, had provided light duty work to other nurses who were injured on-the-job. The EEOC’s lawsuit alleged that the hospital violated both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act) and the Americans with Disabilities Act as a result of its refusal to accommodate the nurse’s lifting restrictions. An EEOC official commenting on the case stated “[i]t is especially important that they [employers] understand that if they are accommodating persons with restrictions arising from a work-related injury, they may have to provide the same accommodations to employees with restrictions arising out of pregnancy.”

If an employer creates light duty positions for employees injured on-the-job, and if the only effective reasonable accommodation for an employee who is pregnant or with a disability (unrelated to work) is to restructure the employee’s position, tantamount to creating a light duty position, then an employer must do so, absent undue hardship. Similarly, if an employer reserves light duty positions for employees who are injured-on-the job, it must do so for pregnant employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work and employees who are disabled (unrelated to work), absent undue hardship. This requirement relates to existing light-duty positions.

An employer is free to establish light duty positions that are temporary and not permanent in nature. Employers offering temporary light duty should have a written policy in place that makes clear that such light duty is temporary and establish a timeframe for such duty. Even so, in some circumstances, a brief extension of temporary light-duty status may be needed to avoid running afoul of the ADA and Title VII. While the law had been unsettled for a number of years, following a U.S. Supreme Court decision on this point, the $95,000 settlement paid by the North Dakota hospital serves as a reminder to employers that the provision of light duty work cannot be exclusively limited to individuals who experience an on-the-job injury or illness without the potential of violating other laws. It is recommended that employers seek the advice of experienced legal counsel before denying an available light duty position to an employee with a health condition or a pregnant employee with physical restrictions.