Sixth Circuit Upholds Ruling for Employer in FMLA, Pregnancy Discrimination Dispute

Pregnant women in the workplace face many challenges. Sometimes, those challenges can include things like being forced to take unpaid leave when their pregnancies restrict them on the job. One gas station worker, whom her employer forced onto leave after she became limited at work, lost her Family and Medical Leave Act and pregnancy discrimination suit. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling that concluded that, although the employer’s policy might appear harsh, the employee had no proof the employer did anything that comprised a violation of the law.

The employee, Lauri Huffman, was a shift leader at a Speedway LLC gas station when she became pregnant. The job sometimes required her to work long shifts and perform strenuous physical tasks. Four months into her pregnancy, the woman’s OB/GYN told the patient to stop working shifts longer than eight hours and to take 15-minute breaks every four hours. Huffman conveyed the information to her employer, and Speedway accommodated her restrictions.

A month later, the woman’s doctor added new restrictions, which related to standing for long periods, climbing, lifting, bending, and squatting. Speedway determined that it could not accommodate the employee’s new restrictions and instead required her to take unpaid FMLA leave (if eligible) or unpaid personal leave. Speedway sent Huffman the necessary FMLA paperwork, but she did not return it because she objected to being forced to take leave. The employer warned Huffman that she could lose her job if she did not return the paperwork. Huffman still did not complete the forms, and Speedway terminated her.

This led the employee to sue Speedway on two bases:  FMLA violations and pregnancy discrimination. The trial court ruled in favor of the employer, prompting Huffman to appeal.

The court first rejected the employee’s FMLA interference claim. An employer’s forcing an employee to take involuntary FMLA leave when she remains capable of performing the required tasks of her job can violate the employee’s FMLA rights and constitute a valid basis for claiming interference, but only if the employee ultimately needed (and sought) that leave for a later absence within the same one-year period but was ineligible because her leave was already exhausted as a result of being wrongfully forced to use her FMLA leave on the first occasion. In Huffman’s case, since she never requested FMLA leave on any occasion, she did not yet have what the law considers to be a valid injury under the FMLA, so her interference claim could not proceed.

She also argued that Speedway committed impermissible retaliation, but that claim also could not survive. An employer’s decision to force an employee to take FMLA leave is not a violation of the law. This meant that Huffman’s opposing being forced to take involuntary FMLA leave was not protected conduct, and, without having identified a valid “protected activity,” she did not have a case for retaliation.

Her pregnancy discrimination claim also came up short. In order to have a pregnancy discrimination case, the employee must show that the employer treated her differently than it did non-pregnant employees in similar situations. The appeals court stated that Huffman did not have this proof. Even though Speedway’s treatment of her “may appear harsh,” there was no information from which a court could conclude that Speedway was not equally harsh with other, non-pregnant employees when they developed “job-restricting health conditions.”

FMLA and pregnancy discrimination cases can be complicated matters for both an employee and an employer. Even the seemingly smallest of details can possibly make the difference between succeeding or not in court. For skillful representation in your FMLA or discrimination case, contact the hardworking Tennessee gender discrimination attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert. Our attorneys have the determination and the knowledge to help you put forward the strongest case possible.

To speak with one of our lawyers about your case, call 404-873-8048.

More blog posts:

Welder’s FMLA Retaliation Case Fails Due to Lack of Proof that Leave Request Triggered Termination, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Sept. 16, 2015

Rights and Risks When it Comes to Pregnant Employees, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Oct. 22, 2014

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