The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has held that a company that transferred a pregnant employee out of a welding job and into a light duty tool room job without first undertaking an objective evaluation of the employee’s ability to do the welding job may be liable for violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) or the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Spees v. James Marine, Inc., 6th Circ., No. 09-5839, August 10, 2010.  

Heather Spees filed claims against her employer, James Marine, Inc. (JMI) alleging that the company violated Title VII’s Pregnancy Discrimination Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act when it moved her from a welding job into a light duty tool room job, and when it ultimately terminated her employment. 

Spees became pregnant shortly after being her job as a welder with JMI in 2007.  This was her third pregnancy; her daughter was born in 1999, but Spees suffered a miscarriage in 2005.  Spees informed her brother (Gunder), who also worked at JMI as a foreman, and her direct supervisor (Milam), of her pregnancy.  Gunder believed that the welder duties – especially the lifting and pulling – should not be performed by Spees while she was pregnant.  Milam was concerned that, because of Spees’ “complications with other pregnancies,” Spees should not be around “the chemicals, the welding smoke, [and] climbing around on some of the jobs.”  Although Spees’ doctor opined that the welding job would be “no problem” and released her to work without restrictions, Milam asked Spees to obtain a second note from the doctor limiting her to “light duty,” which Spees did.  Milam then transferred Spees to the company’s tool room, at the same pay and benefits.

Spees worked the daytime shift in the tool room for a week, but then was transferred to the night shift, which conflicted with Spees child-care schedule.  A month later, Spees transferred her medical care to another obstetrician, who discovered that Spees had a pregnancy-related medical condition that required total bed-rest.  When Spees provided documentation to the company of that fact, Gunder told her that she “was being fired for being pregnant,” and because she had not worked at JMI long enough to have earned FMLA or other additional medical leave. 

The district court granted summary judgment for JMI on all of Spees’ claims, holding that the transfer did not constitute the required “adverse employment action” under the PDA, and that JMI’s reason for firing Spees – the fact that her doctor placed her on full bed-rest, and she had no additional available medical leave – was not a pretext for discrimination.  The Sixth Circuit reversed the decision regarding the transfer, but upheld the dismissal of the termination claims.

According to the Sixth Circuit, the record in this case included evidence to suggest that Spees’ transfer was a materially adverse change in her employment status, in spite of the fact that her salary and benefits remained the same.  The work required fewer qualifications (and therefore, may be viewed as lower status), was “more boring” for Spees than welding had been, and was night-shift work that interfered with her ability to raise her child.  Further, Spees was able to present sufficient evidence to allow a jury to find that her pregnancy was a “motivating factor” in her transfer to the tool room job:  Milam expressed concerns (which he believed were based on “common sense”) that the fumes would create an unsafe condition for her; and Gunder stated that he did not want to her weld because “she was carrying my niece.”  Neither of these managers requested an analysis of the welder position for review by Spees’ doctor, nor did Spees seek the transfer before it was made.  In sum, a reasonable jury could find that JMI’s decision that Spees was unable to weld was due to her pregnancy, thereby supporting her PDA claim.

The Sixth Circuit agreed, however, that Spees’ inability to work at all during her period of bed-rest was a legitimate business reason for her termination.  That restriction came through no action on the part of JMI and was a decision made solely by Spees’ doctor.  That order for bed-rest, coupled with the fact that Spees had no available leave time, was a legitimate basis for the termination.

The Court’s opinion emphasizes the point that an employer cannot make a decision based on suspicion, assumption, or subjective information – even if that decision seems to be in the employee’s best interest.  Here, the managers’ view that Spees would be unable to perform her job as a welder because of her prior miscarriage led to the Court’s holding that Spees’ transfer may have been motivated by her pregnancy.  That holding in turn resulted in a decision to allow a jury to determine the company’s level of liability for that act.


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