The New Jersey Supreme Court issued a far-reaching decision today, clarifying the law that protects pregnant or breastfeeding employees who believe that they’ve been the victims of discrimination. The case involved a female police officer who filed suit against the Township of Ocean and various township officials, accusing them of holding pregnant employees to a different, less favorable standard than non-pregnant employees. The court’s unanimous decision provides three distinct and separate causes of action under the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA), providing attorneys and their clients with an organized and comprehensive way of approaching these cases in the future. According to noted employment law attorney Alan Schorr, it decision is “the most important pregnancy discrimination opinion in the New Jersey Supreme Court’s history.”
The case at the root of the decision was filed by Kathleen Delanoy, a police officer in Ocean Township since January of 2003. In 2014 she informed her supervisors of her second pregnancy and her physician’s recommendation that she be reassigned from patrol duty to “light duty” assignment. This request was consistent with the department’s Maternity Assignment Standard Operating Procedure (SOP). But Delanoy realized that the Maternity Assignment SOP was different from the “Light-Duty/Modified Duty SOP” offered to non-pregnant employees.
Under the Maternity SOP, pregnant officers are required to exhaust their paid time off prior to duty transfer and were limited in the amount of time that they could maintain a switch in assignment. By contrast, under the Light-Duty SOP there was no such time limit and the requirement to exhaust paid time off was waived. Delanoy filed suit, charging that the Maternity SOP discriminated against pregnant officers by requiring paid leave exhaustion, as well as by limiting time of shift transfer.
When Delanoy first filed suit, the Trial Court entered summary judgment in favor of the Township and dismissed her case. The court judged that the township’s maternity SOP did not violate the PWFA, and also pointed to a lack of undue hardship or penalty. She appealed the case, focusing on whether there was parity between the light-duty treatment of pregnant officers and non-pregnant officers. The Appellate Division ruled that the Maternity SOP was less favorable than the Light-Duty SOP and disagreed with the Township’s assertion that there was no requirement to accommodate pregnant employees no longer able to perform the essential function of the job.
The employer appealed to the New Jersey state Supreme Court, which reviewed the case and subsequently provided an organized and comprehensive outline of the three distinct and separate causes of actions to be pled under the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. The court listed those actions as:
- “Unequal” or “unfavorable” treatment of a pregnant or breastfeeding employee
- Failure to provide a reasonable accommodation to a pregnant or breastfeeding employee (subject to the employer’s claim of undue hardship)
- Illegal penalization of a pregnant or breastfeeding employee for requesting an accommodation
According to Mr. Schorr, the decision means that attorneys representing clients in pregnancy discrimination cases have “three new causes of action under the PWFA, and each needs to be pled as separate causes of action using these specific designations.” Schorr & Associates is an experienced employment law firm who a successful record of representing those who have faced discrimination based on their pregnancies or pregnancy-related issues. For more information on how we can help please contact us for an initial consultation.