A pregnant police officer who challenged her employer’s maternity standard operating procedure (SOP) will be able to proceed with her lawsuit after the New Jersey Appellate Division reversed summary judgment for her employer. At the heart of the claim was a provision of the SOP that required pregnant officers to use all of their accumulated paid-leave time as part of the SOP, while non-pregnant officers who requested light-duty could request a waiver from a similar provision.
The plaintiff, Kathleen Delanoy (Kathleen), was a police officer in Ocean Township, N.J. She became pregnant with her first child around March 2011, and soon after, in July 2011, Ocean Township developed two programs to handle employees who request physical accommodations: the Maternity SOP and the Light-Duty/ Modified Duty SOP. Both SOP’s required that officers use all of their accumulated paid-leave time as a condition for receiving a light-duty or maternity assignment. However, the Light-Duty SOP contained a provision allowing the Chief of Police to waive that paid-leave time requirement under certain circumstances, while the Maternity SOP did not.
Kathleen filed a suit alleging that Ocean Township discriminated against her by implementing different SOPs. That case was removed to federal court and eventually settled, but Kathleen became pregnant again in 2014 and brought another claim against Ocean Township. This time she claimed that the two SOPs violated the Pregnant Worker’s Fairness Act (PWFA) and the Law Against Discrimination (LAD), which was amended by the PWFA to prevent discrimination based on pregnancy.
The trial court granted summary judgment for Ocean Township, reasoning that the difference in the two SOPs was justified because the waiver only applied to high ranking officials deemed necessary to the operation of the department, and because not all non-pregnant officers who requested light-duty could receive the waiver. Accordingly, he held that Kathleen failed to show that Ocean Township discriminated against her.
The Appellate Division reversed, holding that the PWFA was intended to prevent discrimination against pregnant employees, and contained four basic safeguards that must be evaluated: 1) the law prohibited unequal treatment of pregnant employees, 2) employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant employees, if needed, 3) employers are not allowed to penalize pregnant employees for seeking reasonable accommodations, and 4) lack of reasonable accommodations could only be excused if they would present an undue hardship to the employer.
Regarding the first issue, the Appellate Division found that the two policies, as written, provided unequal treatment to pregnant officers, and thus violated the PWFA. Because no pregnant officers, regardless of what position they hold, could obtain a waiver to the accumulated paid leave requirement, the Appellate Division held that the two SOPs were unequal on their face, and thus supported Kathleen’s request for declaratory and injunctive relief.
Regarding the other three PWFA requirements, the Appellate Division found that material issues of fact existed that needed to be determined by a jury. Specifically, a jury should determine whether the paid-leave in exchange for temporary light-duty was a reasonable accommodation, as the township argued that it was meant to save taxpayer money. The Appellate Division also determined that a jury should decide whether the exchange should be considered a penalty for officers seeking a reasonable accommodation and if Ocean Township would face undue hardship in providing reasonable accommodations to pregnant officers. The Appellate Division held that these questions should be determined based on the same standards as other disability accommodation cases.
If you are a pregnant employee and have questions regarding your rights under the PWFA and the LAD, feel free to contact Ward, Shindle & Hall for legal advice.