This guest post was authored by Judith S. Islas

The Court of Appeal’s decision in Sanchez v. Swissport, Inc., is a case of widespread importance, impacting the rights of employees disabled by pregnancy and pregnancy related-conditions.  In this case, the Court considered the plight of Anna Sanchez.  After becoming pregnant, she was diagnosed with a high risk pregnancy and placed on bed rest for the remaining eight months of her pregnancy.  Her employer, Swissport, provided Sanchez the required four months pregnancy disability leave.   After the four month leave ended, Sanchez was unable to return to work and requested an extended leave of absence throughout the remainder of her pregnancy.  Swissport did not agree to additional leave and terminated Sanchez’s employment because she could not return to work.

Sanchez sued for pregnancy and pregnancy related  disability discrimination, failure to engage in the interactive process, and a variety of related claims.   Sanchez claimed that after she exhausted the four months of pregnancy disability leave, Swissport had an obligation to provide her additional leave as a form of reasonable accommodation under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”). Swissport disagreed.  It argued that because the pregnancy disability laws expressly provide for four months leave, the leave caps at four months, and once the four months leave expired, Sanchez had no other protection under FEHA.  Therefore Swissport, argued,  it had the right to terminate Sanchez when her four months of pregnancy disability leave expired and she could not return to work.

The appellate court decisively rejected Swissport’s argument.   The Justices pointed to the language of the pregnancy disability laws, which expressly state that its remedies augment, rather than supplant, the other remedies in FEHA. Pregnancy disability leave is contained within the broader provisions of the FEHA and is only one of the protections provided to pregnant employees.  Pregnancy disability leave entitles an employee disabled by pregnancy up to four months of leave regardless of any hardship to  the employer.  The obligation to reasonably accommodate a disabled employee due to pregnancy or some other condition is a separate obligation under the FEHA. The obligation to reasonably accommodate may include a leave of absence of no fixed duration, provided that leave does not impose an undue hardship on the employer.   The Court pointed to multiple cases holding that unpaid leave for extended periods well beyond four months can be a required form of reasonable accommodation.   In this case, Swissport had an obligation to engage in the interactive process with Sanchez to determine whether additional unpaid leave was a reasonable accommodation or whether it imposed an undue hardship on Swissport.

What This Means to Employers

Employers cannot terminate employees who are disabled by pregnancy or pregnancy related conditions after the four months of pregnancy disability leave expires without extending additional rights under the Fair Employment and Housing Act.  If the employee continues to be disabled, and cannot return to work, the employer must engage in the interactive process to determine whether additional leave is a form of reasonable accommodation, and/or other possible types of reasonable accommodations.  Employers may also have a separate obligation under their own personnel rules or memoranda of understanding to provide additional leave beyond four months.  Employers should promptly consult with their legal counsel where an employee exhausts the four months pregnancy disability leave and is still unable to return to work.