The EEOC recently brought suit against the country’s largest home builder on behalf of a pregnant employee who was denied a period of unpaid leave in addition to the maximum permitted under the employer’s policies. What is unique about this suit is that the EEOC brought the suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act rather than the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.
According to the Commission’s press release, D.R. Horton,
denied [the plaintiff] additional unpaid leave time after her doctor placed her on bed rest for over seven months as a result of pregnancy-related complications. Although the company initially provided some leave time, it finally stated it was against company policy to provide the employee any more leave time, even if it was unpaid, and then fired her.
Prior to the passage of the ADA Amendments Act, it is unlikely that the EEOC would have brought this case under the ADA because most courts were reluctant to conclude that pregnancy was a disability. Instead, the Commission would have had to show under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act that the pregnant employee was treated differently than other nonpregnant employees who were similar in their ability and inability to work (i.e., similar work restrictions). However, the EEOC is targeting employer leave policies that are perceived by the Commission as rigid. An example of such policy is one that provides a maximum leave duration of six or twelve months.
One aspect of this tactic that should be troubling to Texas employers is the fact that Texas law uses the enforcement of a neutral absence control policy as a defense to a workers’ compensation claim. Where an employer uniformly and consistently applies a leave of absence policy with a maximum duration, an employee who is separated from employment for exhausting the available leave of absence, even if the absence is caused by an on-the-job injury, will have no workers’ compensation retaliation claim. Suits like the EEOC’s suit against D.R. Horton may have the effect of requiring employers to make more frequent exceptions to these neutral absence control policies that might weaken their effectiveness as a defense in Texas workers’ compensation retaliation cases.