ADA pregnancy-related leave

Employers Must Keep the ADA in Mind When Managing Pregnancy-Related Leaves

By Catherine Gorman and Dan Burke

A recent decision by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (a federal court whose decisions apply to all Ohio and Kentucky employers) is a good reminder that employers must keep the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in mind when managing pregnancy-related leaves of absence.

In Hostettler v. College of Wooster, the College hired Ms. Hostettler to be a HR generalist. At the time, she was four months pregnant and the College elected to provide Ms. Hostettler with 12 weeks of FMLA-protected maternity leave. At the conclusion of the leave, Ms. Hostettler was unable to return to work on a full-time basis due to severe postpartum depression and separation anxiety that, when active, rendered her unable to take care of herself, sleep, walk, and even talk.  Initially the College allowed Ms. Hostettler to work a less than full-time schedule; however, they later determined that the position required full-time work in the office and, since Ms. Hostettler was unable to fulfill that requirement, they terminated her employment.

Ms. Hostettler sued the College, alleging, among other claims, that the College violated the ADA by refusing to allow her to continue to work a modified schedule for a limited period of time.  The lower court ruled in favor of the College, and Ms. Hostettler appealed to the Sixth Circuit.

The Sixth Circuit sided with Ms. Hostettler and sent the case back to the lower court for a jury to decide. Their decision contains several important rulings:

  • Hostettler’s postpartum depression and separation anxiety were “disabilities” protected under the ADA.
  • The College had a duty to engage in an interactive process with Ms. Hostettler to determine whether it could reasonably accommodate her request for a modified work schedule.
  • An employer cannot deny a request for a modified work schedule unless it can show why the employee is needed on a full-time basis – merely stating that anything less than full-time employment is unreasonable will not relieve an employer of its ADA responsibilities.

This case presents several important takeaways for employers:

  • Pregnancy-related conditions that limit an employee in some way will likely be considered “disabilities” under the ADA.
  • Analyze the organization’s responsibilities under the ADA, in addition to those it has under the FMLA, when managing pregnancy-related leaves and evaluating requests for a modified work schedule.
  • Make sure to engage in (and document) the interactive process with an employee when a pregnancy-related condition is affecting the employee’s ability to do her job.
  • Review the essential functions of the job to determine if and why full-time work is essential to the job function before denying a request for a modified work schedule.