3rd Circuit Extends Pregnancy Discrimination Act Protection to Cover Abortion

June 12, 2008

On May 30, 2008, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that an employee who alleged she was terminated by her employer because she had an abortion stated a valid claim under the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”) amendments to Title VII. The Court further held the employee was entitled to a trial on her claim because the reasons regarding her termination were disputed. Jane Doe v. C.A.R.S. Protection Plus, Inc. (3rd Cir. May 30, 2008).

Case Background

The employee in C.A.R.S. Protection worked as a graphic artist for a company specializing in insurance for used cars. After six months on the job, she learned she was pregnant. Soon thereafter, the employee learned that her baby had severe deformities, and her physician recommended that her pregnancy be terminated. After the abortion, the employee took some additional time off for the baby’s funeral and to spend time with her husband. She was then terminated during her absence.

The employer contended that the employee was terminated for failing to call in or request leave. The employee’s husband claimed that he called in on behalf of his wife and received permission for her to take one week off of work.

3rd Circuit Analysis

The Court observed that the employee’s PDA claim was atypical. According to the Court, “[s]he does not claim, for example, that she was discriminated against because she was pregnant or that she had been fired while on maternity leave. Instead, she argues that she was discharged because she underwent a surgical abortion.” The PDA, which is part of Title VII, provides:

“[T]he terms ‘because of sex’ or ‘on the basis of sex’ include, but are not limited to, because of or on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions; and women affected by pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes, including receipt of benefits under fringe benefit programs, as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.”

(Emphasis added).

Relying on EEOC guidelines and the legislative history of the PDA, the Court held that the “related medical conditions” section of the PDA included abortions. This ruling meant that the employee had stated a valid claim for discrimination under Title VII, but did not end the Court’s analysis.

Next, the Court determined that there were factual disputes that prevented summary judgment for the employer and required a trial on the merits. The dispute centered on whether the employee had properly requested vacation for the week following the abortion. The employee claimed that her husband had called and requested vacation on her behalf. The employer asserted the employee had not done so and that the husband’s phone records supported its position. Notwithstanding the phone records, the Court concluded there was a material issue of fact in dispute and the employee was, therefore, entitled to her day in court.

Practice Pointers

  • This decision demonstrates that the PDA prohibits discrimination against women not only while they are pregnant or on maternity leave, but also when they elect to have an abortion.
  • The PDA requires that employers treat women who are pregnant, on maternity leave or recovering from an abortion the same under fringe benefit programs as other persons who are unable to work for other reasons.
  • The PDA does not require better treatment, but it does require equal treatment.
  • Pregnancy, childbirth and related medical conditions also can qualify as “serious health conditions” within the meaning of the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) for which an employee is entitled to unpaid leave.
  • Whenever an employer disciplines or terminates an employee soon after an employee has become pregnant, has a baby or undergoes an abortion, the basis for the termination will be scrutinized closely. To avoid a jury trial, an employer should be prepared to justify the termination or disciplinary decision with objective evidence unrelated to such events.
  • Employers should also be prepared to demonstrate they have consistently enforced the policy, procedure or work rule that is being relied upon in the termination / discipline decision.

For assistance is analyzing your company’s attendance, leave and other pregnancy-related practices in light of the Third Circuit’s ruling, please contact any member of the McGuireWoods Labor & Employment or Employee Benefits Teams.