Tort Reform Is A Lie: Hot Coffee Still Being Used to Mislead

Here's the lie:

The lies used to support corporate efforts to continue to restrict regular people's access to the courthouse are powerful. And, sadly, they work. Routinely, potential clients who are sitting in my office will reference the famous McDonalds "Hot Coffee" case and try to assure me that their case isn't like the Hot Coffee case.  Their case is real. 

Here's the thing, the story everyone knows about the Hot Coffee case is a myth. It's a lie pushed by big business and their tort "reform" groups to poison the minds of potential jurors and make it harder for those who have been legitimately injured to received fair compensation. 

So, What Happened?:

In 1992, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck bought a cup of takeout coffee at a McDonald’s drive-thru in Albuquerque and spilled it on her lap. She sued McDonald’s and a jury awarded her nearly $3 million in punitive damages for the burns she suffered.

Before you hear all the facts, your initial reaction might be "Isn’t coffee supposed to be hot?" or "McDonald’s didn’t pour the coffee on her, she spilled it on herself!" But that would be before you hear all the facts.

Here are the facts:

Mrs. Liebeck was not driving when her coffee spilled, nor was the car she was in moving. She was the passenger in a car that was stopped in the parking lot of the McDonald’s where she bought the coffee. She had the cup between her knees while removing the lid to add cream and sugar when the cup tipped over and spilled the entire contents on her lap.

The coffee was not just “hot.” It was very dangerously hot. McDonald’s policy was to serve it at an extremely hot temperature that could cause serious burns in seconds. Mrs. Liebeck’s injuries were far from minor. She was wearing sweatpants that absorbed the coffee and kept it against her skin. She suffered third-degree burns (the most serious kind) and required skin grafts on her inner thighs and elsewhere. (See the video above for pictures.)

Importantly Mrs. Liebeck’s case was far from an isolated event. McDonald’s had received more than 700 previous reports of injury from its coffee, including reports of third-degree burns, and had paid settlements in some cases.

Mrs. Liebeck offered to settle the case for $20,000 to cover her medical expenses and lost income. But McDonald’s never offered more than $800, so the case went to trial. The jury found Mrs. Liebeck to be partially at fault for her injuries, reducing the compensation for her injuries accordingly.

But the jury’s punitive damages award made headlines — upset by McDonald’s unwillingness to correct a policy despite hundreds of people suffering injuries, they awarded Liebeck the equivalent of two days’ worth of revenue from coffee sales for the restaurant chain. Two days. That wasn’t, however, the end of it. The original punitive damage award was ultimately reduced by more than 80 percent by the judge. And, to avoid what likely would have been years of appeals, Mrs. Liebeck and McDonald’s later reached a confidential settlement for even less than that.

Here is just some of the evidence the jury heard during the trial:  

  • McDonald’s operations manual required the franchisee to hold its coffee at 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Coffee at that temperature, if spilled, causes third-degree burns in three to seven seconds.
  • The chairman of the department of mechanical engineering and biomechanical engineering at the University of Texas testified that this risk of harm is unacceptable, as did a widely recognized expert on burns, the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Burn Care and Rehabilitation, the leading scholarly publication in the specialty.
  • McDonald’s admitted it had known about the risk of serious burns from its scalding hot coffee for more than 10 years. The risk had repeatedly been brought to its attention through numerous other claims and suits.
  • An expert witness for the company testified that the number of burns was insignificant compared to the billions of cups of coffee the company served each year.
  • At least one juror later told the Wall Street Journal she thought the company wasn’t taking the injuries seriously. To the corporate restaurant giant those 700 injury cases caused by hot coffee seemed relatively rare compared to the millions of cups of coffee served. But, the juror noted, “there was a person behind every number and I don’t think the corporation was attaching enough importance to that.”
  • McDonald’s quality assurance manager testified that McDonald’s coffee, at the temperature at which it was poured into Styrofoam cups, was not fit for consumption because it would burn the mouth and throat.
  • McDonald’s admitted at trial that consumers were unaware of the extent of the risk of serious burns from spilled coffee served at McDonald’s then-required temperature.
  • McDonald’s admitted it did not warn customers of the nature and extent of this risk and could offer no explanation as to why it did not.

After the verdict, one of the jurors said over the course of the trial he came to realize the case was about “callous disregard for the safety of the people.” Another juror said “the facts were so overwhelmingly against the company.”

That’s because those jurors were able to hear all the facts — including those presented by McDonald’s — and see the extent of Mrs. Liebeck’s injuries.

But that's not the story that the public has heard. Tort reform advocates lied about the facts of the case and the fake story gained traction. It went viral. So viral that now this story is what is most often cited by jurors and others when explaining why they don't trust lawyers, why they don't like lawsuits, and why they think plaintiffs are just out for a quick buck. 

And it's all a lie.

 

 

If you want to read more, start here.

Can You Trust Your Company's HR Department?

A fellow blogger has a post out this week titled "Who Do You Report Harassment To If the Harasser Is the CEO?".  It is a thoughtful article and it makes the excellent point that HR for every company needs to bake into their policies a method by which an employee can internally report sexual harassment being committed by the CEO or owner of a company without risk of retaliation. I think that is an excellent goal to strive for and I hope that all HR departments set that as a goal.  There is only one problem with the premise of the article. 

The effort will almost certainly fail. 

Michael Corleone: "C'mon Frankie... my father did business with HR, he respected HR."
Frank Pentangeli: "Your father did business with HR, he respected HR... but he never trusted HR!"

 

 

HR is, in my opinion, possibly the most challenging role for any manager to do and do well. It is arguably designed to fail. The problem is obvious: HR serves two masters. On the one hand, HR is designed to serve as a helpful ombudsman to employees. To assist employees who are being mistreated. To conduct thorough investigations and correct inappropriate behavior against employees. On the other hand, HR is required to defend management against accusations of unlawful employment practices. HR is usually directly involved in the termination decisions that lead to EEOC filings. HR is then in charge of or at least heavily involved in drafting the company's defensive statement of position filings, arguing that the company is blameless. Thus, the very department that an employee is supposed to trust with his or her career and feel comfortable making a complaint to is the same department that will be spearheading the fight against the employee when it all goes south. 

What this means in most companies is that, no, you cannot trust HR to help you. While many HR officers have their hearts in the right place when they start working in the field, they can't help but know who is responsible for signing their paychecks. Hint: it's not the employee bringing a complaint against a member of management.  

So, should you bring complaints to HR? Yes, you should. In fact, in many cases you are legally required to do so or you risk waiving any claims you may have against the company for the discrimination or harassment you are reporting. Just don't assume that HR's only role is to help you. Because it isn't. While HR may be trying to assist you they are also assessing corporate risk, documenting your complaint in a way that will assist the company in defending against your complaint, and looking for ways to satisfy the demands of management. 

Here are a couple of quick tips: 

  1. Make all reports in writing. When push comes to shove down the road, HR is liable to either not "remember" you made a complaint or to remember it substantially differently than you do. Putting your report in writing is the only way to prove you made a complaint, when you made it, and to whom the complaint was made.  
  2. You know that written report from number 1, above?  KEEP A COPY. A written complaint does you know good if you send the only copy to HR. It might...you know...get lost. 
  3. Consider going outside the organization to the EEOC. If your complaint involves EEO-based (age, sex, race, religion disability, color) discrimination or harassment then consider making a complaint to the EEOC sooner rather than later. There will be little question that a report to the EEOC is protected activity under the law. This gives you a somewhat higher level of protection from retaliation than if you merely report internally. 
  4.  Consult with an employment lawyer. If you are in a situation in which you feel you need to make a complaint against management then, make no mistake, you job IS at risk. Start looking for a qualified employment attorney who represents employees. Be warned, in many parts of the country there aren't that many who lawyers who specialize in representing employees. So start looking before you need one. And don't expect such a lawyer to visit with you for free. This is not a simple car accident case and you aren't looking for a PI lawyer who can take your case on a contingent fee basis. Employment law is very specialized and contingency fees are generally not available for consulting services. If you find a qualified lawyer to advise you, however, it is money well spent. 

Bottom line: Yes, you should report harassment or discrimination internally to your company's HR department. But that doesn't mean you should blindly trust the HR department. Understand that they serve two masters and protect yourself accordingly.  

File a Charge With the EEOC Immediately Or Risk Losing Your Case

Some prospective clients are surprised to learn that most of wrongful termination or sexual harassment matters than an employment lawyer handles cannot be taken straight to court. This is, unfortunately, true.

Most cases having to do with discrimination or wrongful termination relating to an EEO category (age, race, sex, disability, etc) must go through a required administrative process before a lawsuit can be filed. Even more confusing is the fact that you may have more than one administrative agency to choose from when deciding where to file. Does it matter where you file? Sometimes yes. This administrative process and the choices that must be made early on in your case is one of the best reasons to consider hiring a lawyer earlier rather than later. More on why that is later. Short of that, here are some answers to some of the more basic questions regarding administrative filings:

What Types Of Cases Must Be Filed Administratively?

If your case involves potential claims for discrimination or termination based on an EEO category (age, race, sex, disability, religion, etc) then you probably need to file administratively. Claims for sexual harassment or retaliation for making a complaint or participating in an investigation of an EEO-related matter also must be filed administratively.

When Do I Need to File? Short Answer: IMMEDIATELY.

No really. The limitation periods for these types of claims vary depending on numerous factors but they are all short. In many states you will lose your right to pursue an action if you don’t file a Charge with the EEOC within 180 days of the event or occurrence you are complaining about. If you are a federal worker the deadline can be as little as 45 days. These are hard, fixed deadlines. There is no extending them because you had a good reason for delay. In many states, you only have 180 days to file a charge with the EEOC or lose your right to sue FOREVER, no matter how blatant the discrimination.

Where Do I Need to File

The default place to file your discrimination, sexual harassment or retaliation Charge is with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. They have offices in most metropolitan areas. Learn more here: http://eeoc.gov/employees/charge.cfm. You can also file a Charge by contacting them by phone at (800) 669–4000 (be prepared to wait an hour or more). However, depending on where you live, it might be better to file with a state or city agency that has a work-sharing agreement with the EEOC. Contact an employment lawyer near you to help you decide what is the best course of action in your area.

What Is the Process?

Filing a Charge is relatively easy once you arrive at the agency’s offices. You fill out a short form and then meet with an investigator who will complete the Charge documents for your signature. Each field office has its own procedures for appointments or walk-ins so check the website or call ahead for best results. It is always helpful if you bring with you to the meeting any information or papers that will help the investigator understand your case. For example, if you were fired because of your performance, you might bring with you the letter or notice telling you that you were fired and your performance evaluations. You might also bring with you the names of people who know about what happened and information about how to contact them.

Important: Keep in mind that the EEOC (and similar state agencies) can only investigate issues having to do with terminations and/or discrimination relating to EEO issues or retaliation for having made a complaint regarding EEO issues. They don’t investigate overtime or other pay issues and cannot help you if your termination is just because “my boss was mean.” Your issue must be EEO-related.

What Happens Next?

Once you have filed a Charge you may be invited to mediation. This is a topic for another article but the short version is that mediation is a voluntary process where the two sides of the dispute (you and your employer) sit down with an EEOC mediator for free to see if you can work out your differences and reach a pre-suit settlement. It is an excellent free service that the EEOC provides and I highly recommend it for most cases. Keep in mind, however, that you will benefit from having a lawyer with you at a mediation unless your case is so small that you wish to settle it for very little money (typically less than $15,000.00. If your case is worth more than this baseline amount, having a good lawyer will typically enhance the value of your case by more than you will end up paying your lawyer in fees up front or in a contingent fee on the back end.

How Do I Find A Good Lawyer?

This can be a difficult task but it is worth your time to find the right lawyer for your case. Geography plays a big role here. In some parts of the country there will be many qualified lawyers to choose from. In other areas there will be few. To get started, review my article on How to Hire an Employment Lawyer.

EEOC Updates Its Guidance on Pregnancy Discrimination – Questions and Answers

The EEOC recently issued Enforcement Guidance on pregnancy discrimination for the first time in over thirty years. The guidance suggests that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act’s (“PDA”) coverage may be much broader and provide workers much more protection than many employers previously thought. The Enforcement Guidance updates prior guidance on this subject in light of legal developments over the past thirty years.

The guidance (full copy of which can be found here) includes discussions of:

  • when employer actions may constitute unlawful discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (PDA);
  • the obligation of employers under the PDA to provide pregnant workers equal access to benefits of employment such as leave, light duty, and health benefits; and
  • how Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which went into effect over a decade after the PDA and was amended in 2008 to broaden the definition of disability, applies to individuals with pregnancy-related impairments.

The PDA clarifies that discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions is a prohibited form of sex discrimination. It requires that employers treat women affected by pregnancy or related medical conditions the same way they treat non-pregnant applicants or employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work.

Title I of the ADA prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of disability and requires covered employers to provide reasonable accommodations to the known limitations of otherwise qualified employees and applicants for employment. Although pregnancy itself is not a disability, impairments related to pregnancy can be disabilities if they substantially limit one or more major life activities or substantially limited major life activities in the past. The ADA also covers pregnant workers who are regarded as having disabilities.

Both the PDA and the ADA apply to private and state and local government employers with 15 or more employees, labor organizations, employment agencies, and apprenticeship and training programs. The PDA applies to employees in the federal sector, as does Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which applies the ADA’s employment nondiscrimination standards. Beyond these federal laws, state and local laws in some jurisdictions provide additional protections.

With this new guidance in mind, here are some EEOC answers to some commonly asked questions regarding pregnancy discrimination and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”):

General Prohibitions and Requirements

  • What workplace actions are prohibited under the PDA?

Under the PDA, an employer cannot fire, refuse to hire, demote, or take any other adverse action against a woman if pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition was a motivating factor in the adverse employment action. The PDA prohibits discrimination with respect to all aspects of employment, including pay, job assignments, promotions, layoffs, training, and fringe benefits (such as leave and health insurance).

  • Does the PDA protect individuals who are not currently pregnant based on their ability or intention to become pregnant?

Yes. The PDA’s protection extends to differential treatment based on an employee’s fertility or childbearing capacity. Thus sex-specific policies restricting women from certain jobs based on childbearing capacity, such as those banning fertile women from jobs with exposure to harmful chemicals, are generally prohibited. An employer’s concern about risks to a pregnant employee or her fetus will rarely, if ever, justify such restrictions. Sex-specific job restrictions can only be justified if the employer can show that lack of childbearing capacity is a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ), that is, reasonably necessary to the normal operation of the business. (See also Question 7, below.)

An employer is also prohibited from discriminating against an employee because she has stated that she intends to become pregnant. Thus, demoting an employee with a good performance record two weeks after she informed her manager that she was trying to become pregnant would constitute evidence of pregnancy discrimination.

  • May an employer ask an employee or applicant whether she is pregnant or if she intends to become pregnant soon?

Although Title VII does not prohibit employers from asking applicants or employees about gender-related characteristics such as pregnancy, such questions are generally discouraged. The EEOC will consider the fact that an employer has asked such a question when evaluating a charge alleging pregnancy discrimination. Adverse decisions relating to hiring, assignments, or promotion, that are based on an employer’s assumptions or stereotypes about pregnant workers’ attendance, schedules, physical ability to work, or commitment to their jobs, are unlawful.

  • Is an employee or applicant protected from discrimination because of her past pregnancy?

Yes. An employee or applicant may not be subjected to discrimination because of a past pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical condition. For example, an employer would violate the PDA by terminating an employee shortly after she returns from medically-related pregnancy leave following the birth of her child if the employee’s pregnancy is the reason for the termination. Close proximity between the employee’s return to work and the employer’s decision to terminate her, coupled with an explanation for the termination that is not believable (e.g., unsubstantiated performance problems by an employee who has always been a good performer), would constitute evidence of pregnancy discrimination.

  • What are examples of medical conditions related to pregnancy or childbirth?

Medical conditions related to pregnancy may include symptoms such as back pain; disorders such as preeclampsia (pregnancy-induced high blood pressure) and gestational diabetes; complications requiring bed rest; and the after-effects of a delivery. (For information about the application of the ADA to pregnancy-related medical conditions, see Question 18, below.)

Lactation is also a pregnancy-related medical condition. An employee who is lactating must be able to address lactation-related needs to the same extent as she and her coworkers are able to address other similarly limiting medical conditions. For example, if an employer allows employees to change their schedules or use sick leave for routine doctor appointments and to address non-incapacitating medical conditions, then it must allow female employees to change their schedules or use sick leave for lactation-related needs.

In addition to being protected under the PDA, female hourly employees who are breastfeeding have rights under other laws, including a provision of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that amended the Fair Labor Standards Act to require employers to provide reasonable break time and a private place for breastfeeding employees to express milk. The Department of Labor has published a Fact Sheet providing general information on the break time requirement for nursing mothers. The Fact Sheet can be found at http://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs73.htm.

Workers with Caregiving Responsibilities

  • Does the law provide protections for caregivers?

Discrimination based on an employee’s caregiving responsibilities may violate Title VII if it is based on sex. For instance, an employer would violate Title VII by denying job opportunities to women, but not to men, with young children, or by reassigning a woman who has recently returned from maternity leave to less desirable work based on the assumption that, as a new mother, she will be less committed to her job. Although leave related to pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions can be limited to women affected by those conditions, if an employer provides parental leave, it must be provided to similarly situated men and women on the same terms. In addition, employers covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) must provide eligible employees with up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave to care for and bond with a newborn baby or a recently adopted child. Discrimination based on an employee’s caregiving responsibilities may violate the ADA if it is based on the employee’s relationship with an individual with a disability. See Question 22, below.

Concerns About Safety and Ability to Perform the Job

  • Will an employer violate the PDA if it takes an adverse action against a pregnant worker based on concerns about her health and safety?

Yes. Although an employer may, of course, require that a pregnant worker be able to perform the duties of her job, adverse employment actions, including those related to hiring, assignments, or promotion, that are based on an employer’s assumptions or stereotypes about pregnant workers’ attendance, schedules, physical ability to work, or commitment to their jobs, are unlawful. Even when an employer believes it is acting in an employee’s best interest, adverse actions based on assumptions or stereotypes are prohibited. For instance, it is unlawful for an employer to involuntarily reassign a pregnant employee to a lower paying job involving fewer deadlines based on an assumption that the stress and fast-paced work required in her current job would increase risks associated with her pregnancy.

An employer may only reassign a pregnant worker based on concerns about her health or the health of her fetus if it can establish that non-pregnancy or non-fertility is a BFOQ as described in Question 2, above. In very few, if any, situations will an employer be able to establish this defense.

  • May an employer take an adverse action against a pregnant worker because of the views or opinions of co-workers or customers?

No. Just as an employer cannot refuse to hire or retain a pregnant woman because of its own prejudices against pregnant women, it cannot take an adverse action against a pregnant worker because of the prejudices of co-workers, clients, or customers. For instance, an employer may not place a pregnant worker who can perform her job on leave based on her co-workers’ belief that she will place additional burdens on them and interfere with their productivity.

Harassment

  • Does the PDA protect employees from harassment based on pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions?

Yes. Unwelcome and offensive jokes or name-calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule, insults, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance that is motivated by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions may constitute unlawful harassment. Whether the conduct is sufficiently hostile to constitute unlawful harassment depends on factors such as the frequency of the conduct or its severity. Employer liability can result from the conduct of supervisors, coworkers, or non-employees such as customers or business partners over whom the employer has some control.

Equal Access to Benefits
An employer is required under the PDA to treat an employee temporarily unable to perform the functions of her job because of her pregnancy or a related medical condition in the same manner as it treats other employees similar in their ability or inability to work, whether by providing modified tasks, alternative assignments, or fringe benefits such as disability leave.

Light Duty

  • If a pregnant employee needs light duty (temporary work that is less physically demanding than her normal duties), is the employer required under the PDA to provide it?

Yes, if it provides light duty for employees who are not pregnant but who are similar in their ability or inability to work. An employer may not treat pregnant workers differently from employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work based on the cause of their limitations. For example, an employer may not deny light duty to a pregnant employee based on a policy that limits light duty to employees with on-the-job injuries.

  • Does EEOC’s interpretation of the PDA create preferential treatment for pregnant workers?

No. Consistent with the language of the law, the EEOC’s position is that the PDA requires only that an employer treat pregnant workers the same as it treats workers who are not pregnant but who are similar in their ability or inability to work. Thus, an employer may offer light duty to pregnant employees on the same terms that it offers light duty to other workers similar in their ability or inability to work. For example, if an employer’s policy places certain types of restrictions on the availability of light duty positions, such as limits on the number of light duty positions or the duration of light duty, the employer may lawfully apply the same restrictions to pregnant workers as it applies to non-pregnant workers. If an employer does not provide light duty to employees who are not pregnant, it does not have to do so for pregnant workers.

Leave

  • May an employer require a pregnant employee who is able to perform her job to take leave at any point in her pregnancy or after childbirth?

No. An employer may not force an employee to take leave because she is or has been pregnant, as long as she is able to perform her job. Requiring leave violates the PDA even if the employer believes it is acting in the employee’s best interest. If an employee has been absent from work as a result of a pregnancy-related condition and then recovers, her employer may not require her to remain on leave until the baby’s birth; nor may an employer prohibit an employee from returning to work for a certain length of time after childbirth.

  • May an employer impose greater restrictions on pregnancy-related medical leave than on other medical leave?

No. Under the PDA, an employer must allow women with physical limitations resulting from pregnancy to take leave on the same terms and conditions as others who are similar in their ability or inability to work. Thus, an employer:

may not fire a pregnant employee for being absent if her absence is covered by the employer’s sick leave policy;
may not require employees limited by pregnancy or related medical conditions to first exhaust their sick leave before using other types of accrued leave if it does not impose the same requirements on employees who seek leave for other medical conditions;
may not impose a shorter maximum period for pregnancy-related leave than for other types of medical or short-term disability leave; and
must allow an employee who is temporarily disabled due to pregnancy to take leave without pay to the same extent that other employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work are allowed to do so.
An employer must also hold open a job for a pregnancy-related absence for the same length of time that jobs are held open for employees on sick or temporary disability leave. If the pregnant employee used leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the employer must restore the employee to her original job or to an equivalent job with equivalent pay, benefits, and other terms and conditions of employment.

Note that under the ADA, an employer may have to provide leave in addition to that provided under its normal leave policy as a reasonable accommodation for someone with a pregnancy-related impairment that is a disability. (For more information about the obligation to make reasonable accommodations under the ADA, see Questions 23–25, below.)

  • Must an employer provide leave to bond with, or care for, a newborn (called “parental leave” in the Guidance)?

Under the PDA, leave related to pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions may be limited to women affected by those conditions, but parental leave must be provided to similarly situated men and women on the same terms. If, for example, an employer extends leave to new mothers beyond the period of recuperation from childbirth, it cannot lawfully refuse to provide an equivalent amount of leave to new fathers for the same purpose. In addition, the FMLA requires covered employers to provide 12 weeks of job-protected leave for covered employees to care for and bond with a newborn baby or a recently adopted child.

Health Insurance

  • Are employers who provide health insurance benefits required to provide insurance that includes coverage of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions?

Yes. Employers who have health insurance benefit plans must apply the same terms and conditions for pregnancy-related costs as for medical costs unrelated to pregnancy. If the plan covers pre-existing conditions – as all health plans are required to do as of January 1, 2014, under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – then it must cover the costs of an insured employee’s pre-existing pregnancy. If the plan covers a particular percentage of the medical costs incurred for nonpregnancy-related conditions, it must cover the same percentage of recoverable costs for pregnancy-related expenses.

Employers can violate the PDA by providing health insurance that excludes coverage of prescription contraceptives, whether the contraceptives are prescribed for birth control or for medical purposes. To comply with Title VII, an employer’s health insurance plan must cover prescription contraceptives on the same basis as prescription drugs, devices, and services that are used to prevent the occurrence of medical conditions other than pregnancy. For example, if an employer’s health insurance plan covers preventive care for medical conditions other than pregnancy, such as vaccinations, physical examinations, or prescription drugs to prevent high blood pressure or to lower cholesterol levels, then prescription contraceptives also must be covered.

  • May employers covered by the PDA refuse to provide coverage of prescription contraceptives if they have religious objections to doing so?

In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., the Supreme Court recently ruled that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) as applied to closely held for-profit corporations whose owners had religious objections to providing certain types of contraceptives. EEOC’s Enforcement Guidance explains Title VII’s prohibition of pregnancy discrimination; it does not address whether certain employers might be exempt from Title VII’s requirements under the RFRA or under the Constitution’s First Amendment.

Proof of Pregnancy Discrimination

  • How can a pregnant worker prove that an adverse action was the result of pregnancy discrimination under the PDA?

A PDA violation will be found if an employee’s pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical condition was a motivating factor in an adverse employment action. Evidence of discriminatory motive may include an explicit policy that treats pregnant workers less favorably; statements of decision-makers demonstrating pregnancy bias; close timing between an adverse action and a decision-maker’s knowledge of the employee’s pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical condition; and more favorable treatment of employees of either sex who are not affected by pregnancy but who are similar in their ability or inability to work.
Discrimination may also occur when a neutral policy or practice has a disparate (or disproportionate) impact on pregnant employees if an employer cannot show that the policy or practice is job related and consistent with business necessity. Examples may include policies that exclude all or substantially all pregnant employees from access to light duty or leave.

 

THE AMERICANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT

Covered Disabilities

  • Are pregnant employees covered under Title I of the ADA?

In some circumstances, employees with pregnancy-related impairments may be covered by the ADA. Although pregnancy itself is not an impairment within the meaning of the ADA and thus is not a disability, pregnant workers and job applicants are not excluded from the ADA’s protections. Changes to the definition of the term “disability” resulting from the enactment of the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 make it much easier for individuals with pregnancy-related impairments to demonstrate that they have disabilities and are thus entitled to the ADA’s protection.

Pregnancy-related impairments are disabilities if they substantially limit one or more major life activities or substantially limited major life activities in the past. Major life activities that may be affected by pregnancy-related impairments include walking, standing, and lifting, as well as major bodily functions such as the musculoskeletal, neurological, cardiovascular, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions. The term disability should be construed broadly, and the determination of whether someone has a disability should not demand extensive analysis. An impairment does not have to prevent, or severely or significantly restrict, performance of a major life activity to be considered substantially limiting, and impairments of short duration that are sufficiently limiting can be disabilities.

The ADA also covers pregnant workers who are regarded as having disabilities. An employer regards a pregnant worker as having a disability if it takes an adverse action against her (e.g., refuses to hire or terminates her) because of an actual or perceived pregnancy-related impairment, unless the employer can demonstrate that the impairment is transitory (lasting or expected to last for six months or less) and minor.

  • What are examples of pregnancy-related impairments that may be substantially limiting within the meaning of the ADA?

Examples of pregnancy-related impairments that may substantially limit major life activities include pelvic inflammation, which may substantially limit the ability to walk, or pregnancy-related carpal tunnel syndrome affecting the ability to lift or to perform manual tasks. Impairments that may substantially limit reproductive functions include disorders of the uterus or cervix that may necessitate certain physical restrictions to enable a full term pregnancy, or may result in limitations following childbirth. Pregnancy-related impairments that may substantially limit other major bodily functions include pregnancy-related sciatica limiting musculoskeletal functions; gestational diabetes limiting endocrine function; and preeclampsia, which causes high blood pressure, affecting cardiovascular and circulatory functions.

  • When does an employer discriminate against a pregnant applicant or employee based on a record of a disability?

An employer discriminates against an applicant or employee on the basis of her record of a disability when it takes an adverse action against her because of a past substantially limiting impairment. For instance, an employer would violate the ADA by denying employment to a job applicant based on a history of gestational diabetes that resolved itself following the birth of her child three years earlier.

  • When does an employer regard someone who is pregnant as having a disability?

An employer regards a pregnant applicant or employee as having a disability if it takes a prohibited action because of an actual or perceived pregnancy-related impairment that is not both transitory (lasting or expected to last six months or less) and minor. For instance, if an employer makes an adverse employment decision such as involuntarily reassigning a pregnant employee to a lower paying, less physically demanding position because it believes that the employee is experiencing pregnancy-related “complications,” it regards the employee as having a disability. The employer would be liable for discrimination if the employee is able to do the essential functions of her job without posing a “direct threat” (i.e., a significant risk of substantial harm) to herself or others.

  • Does the ADA protect the parents of a newborn with a disability?

Yes. The ADA prohibits discrimination against individuals who have a known “association” with an individual with a disability. Thus, for example, an employer would violate the ADA by refusing to hire the mother or father of a newborn with a disability because it was concerned that the applicant would take a lot of time off to care for the child or that the child’s medical condition would impose high health care costs.

Pregnancy and Reasonable Accommodation

  • What is a reasonable accommodation?

A reasonable accommodation is a change in the workplace or in the way things are customarily done that enables an individual with a disability to apply for a job, perform a job’s essential functions, or enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment.

  • Must an employer provide a reasonable accommodation to a worker with a pregnancy- related impairment who requests one?

Yes, if the accommodation is necessary because of a pregnancy-related impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. An employer may only deny a needed reasonable accommodation to an employee with a disability who has asked for one if it would result in an undue hardship. An undue hardship is defined as an action requiring significant difficulty or expense.

  • What are some accommodations a pregnant worker may need?

Examples of reasonable accommodations that may be necessary for someone whose pregnancy-related impairment is a disability include:

  • Redistributing marginal or nonessential functions (for example, occasional lifting) that a pregnant worker cannot perform, or altering how an essential or marginal function is performed;
  • Modifying workplace policies, such as allowing a pregnant worker more frequent breaks or allowing her to keep a water bottle at a workstation even though keeping drinks at workstations is generally prohibited;
  • Modifying a work schedule so that someone who experiences severe morning sickness can arrive later than her usual start time and leave later to make up the time;
  • Allowing a pregnant worker placed on bed rest to telework where feasible;
  • Granting leave in addition to what an employer would normally provide under a sick leave policy;
  • Purchasing or modifying equipment, such as a stool for a pregnant employee who needs to sit while performing job tasks typically performed while standing; and
  • Temporarily reassigning an employee to a light duty position.

THE FAMILY AND MEDICAL LEAVE ACT

  • Does the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provide additional protections for pregnant workers and parents?

Yes. Although Title VII does not require an employer to provide pregnancy-related or child care leave if it provides no leave for other temporary illness or family obligations, employers covered by the FMLA (those with 50 or more employees) must provide eligible employees with up to 12 weeks of leave in a 12-month period for the birth of a child and to care for a newborn child, for the placement with the employee of a child for adoption or foster care or to care for the newly placed child, for the employee’s own serious health condition, or for the employee to care for a spouse or child who has a serious health condition. Employees with such a need for family or medical leave are eligible if they worked for a covered employer for a year and for at least 1,250 hours during the immediately preceding year. The FMLA is enforced by the U.S. Department of Labor. For more information about the FMLA see http://www.dol.gov/whd.

A Win for Pregnant Workers at the Supreme Court

Peggy Young, a UPS driver who was forced from her when she got pregnant because the company wouldn’t allow her to work light duty, was victorious late last month at the U.S. Supreme Court. You can read the entire opinion here.

"Conservative" Supreme Court Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito joined with the "liberal" justices on the Court in what most observers are characterizing as a big win, not just for pregnant women, but also for all women in the workplace. That is no small feat from a court that has in recent years narrowed interpretations of anti-discrimination law and been reluctant to impose any new burdens on businesses. 

The case had brought together an unusual alliance of women’s rights activists and anti-abortion groups, who argued that women shouldn’t have to choose between her pregnancy and her job.

The 6-3 opinion, written by Justice Stephen Breyer, sends the Young case back to the Fourth Circuit of Appeals, which had previously ruled against Young, with a new set of rules that should make Young’s chances of prevailing “very strong.” The Fourth Circuit, Breyer wrote, should have asked, “Why, when the employer accommodated so many, could it not accommodate pregnant women as well?”

Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia dissented. Young argued that because UPS accommodated other kinds of workers, such as injured ones or drivers who had lost their Department of Transportation licenses, it was discriminatory not to extend the same to pregnant women who also temporarily needed to be accommodated. The court’s majority didn’t entirely accept that argument, but it did say that pregnant workers could bring claims under the long-settled "McDonnell Douglass process for adjudicating other discriminatory claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Under the court’s reasoning, Young wouldn’t have to show UPS was intentionally discriminating against pregnant workers, but a court would have to “consider the extent to which an employer’s policy treats pregnant workers less favorably than it treats non-pregnant workers similar in their ability or inability to work.”

UPS has reportedly already changed its policy to explicitly include accommodations for pregnant workers, but the rules laid out by the case will impact working women at companies around the country, since they guide lower courts in future litigation.  

EEOC Releases 2014 Statistics

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) today released a comprehensive set of fiscal year 2014 private sector data tables providing detailed breakdowns for the 88,778 charges of workplace discrimination the agency received. The fiscal year ran from Oct. 1, 2013, to Sept. 30, 2014.

The number of charges filed decreased compared with recent fiscal years, due in part to the government shutdown during the reporting period. While charge filings were down overall compared to the previous fiscal year, first quarter charge filings--which included the period of the shutdown--were 3,000 to 5,000 less than the other quarters.

Among the charges the EEOC received, the percentage of charges alleging retaliation reached its highest amount ever: 42.8 percent. The percentage of charges alleging race discrimination, the second most common allegation, has remained steady at approximately 35 percent. In fiscal year 2014, the EEOC obtained $296.1 million in total monetary relief through its enforcement program prior to the filing of litigation.

The number of lawsuits on the merits filed by the EEOC's Office of General Counsel throughout the nation was 133, up slightly from the previous two fiscal years. A lawsuit on the merits involves an allegation of discrimination, compared with procedural lawsuits, which are filed mostly to enforce subpoenas or for preliminary relief. Monetary relief from cases litigated, including settlements, totaled $22.5 million.

"Behind these numbers are individuals who turned to the EEOC because they believe that they have suffered unlawful discrimination," said EEOC Chair Jenny R. Yang. "The EEOC remains committed to meaningful resolution of charges and strategic enforcement to eliminate barriers to equal employment opportunity."

The updated data include the popular tables of Statutes by Issue and Bases by Issue. "Bases" refers to the protected characteristics giving rise to the discrimination, such as sex or age. In contrast "issue" is the discriminatory action, such as discharge or failure to promote.

More specifically, the charge numbers show the following breakdowns by bases alleged in descending order.

  • Retaliation under all statutes: 37,955 (42.8 percent of all charges filed)
  • Race (including racial harassment): 31,073 (35 percent)
  • Sex (including pregnancy and sexual harassment): 26,027 (29.3 percent)
  • Disability: 25,369 (28.6 percent)
  • Age: 20,588 (23.2 percent)
  • National Origin: 9,579 (10.8 percent)
  • Religion: 3,549 (4.0 percent)
  • Color: 2,756 (3.1 percent)
  • Equal Pay Act: 938 (1.1 percent) but note that sex-based wage discrimination can also be charged under Title VII's sex discrimination provision
  • Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act: 333 (0.4 percent)

These percentages add up to more than 100 because some charges allege multiple bases, such as discrimination on the bases of race and color, or sex and retaliation.

In fiscal year 2014, 30 percent of the charges filed with EEOC alleged the issue of harassment on various bases, such as race harassment or harassment on the basis of disability. Preventing harassment through systemic enforcement and targeted outreach is a priority issue for the Commission. The January 14, 2015 Commission meeting focused on Workplace Harassment. The new table for All Harassment Charges includes sexual harassment as well as other forms of harassment. Sexual Harassment still remains as a separate table, joined by new tables showing charges of Race Harassment as well as Charges Alleging Harassment Other than Sexual Harassment.

Discharge continues to be the most common issue for all bases under Title VII, the ADEA and the ADA. Allegations of harassment for all bases were the next most frequently cited issue, with the exception of race. For the basis of race, discriminatory terms and conditions of employment was the second most frequently cited issue (9,332), with harassment being the third (9,023).

The updated tables also include Charges by State. The greatest number of charges were filed in Texas (8,035), followed by Florida (7,528) and California (6,363).