The Limited Impact of the Justice Department’s Pregnancy Discrimination Victory

By Kamika Shaw*

Earlier this week, the Department of Justice settled a pregnancy discrimination lawsuit against Florence, Kentucky. While the case is certainly a victory for the Justice Department and pregnancy discrimination activists, the outcome may have little impact on pregnancy discrimination claims generally, which are usually unsuccessful.

The Justice Department brought the suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title 1 of The Americans with Disabilities Act. The suit involved two pregnant police officers who patrolled Florence and requested light duty assignments for the duration of their pregnancies in 2014. The city denied both officers’ requests and gave them the choice of either either performing their normal patrol duties or taking unpaid leave. Prior to April 2013, the police department had allowed pregnancy-related light duty requests; subsequently, the department limited light duty work to employees who suffered employment-related injuries. Officers Trischler and Riley each decided to continue working, and later took a leave of absence. Pursuant to the settlement, Florence has agreed to adopt new policies that allow accommodations for pregnant officers and establish procedures for processing accommodations requests. Florence has also agreed to provide training for all employees who make personnel decisions related to accommodation requests pursuant to Title VII and the ADA. Lastly, Florence will pay officers Trischler and Riley $135,000 in compensatory damages and attorney’s fees. The settlement is pending approval by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District for Kentucky.

This settlement is the Justice Department’s first since last year’s Supreme Court decision, Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc. The Court reinstated a pregnancy discrimination suit against United Parcel Service, and held that a genuine issue of material fact exists where an employee can demonstrate that an employer grants accommodations to a large number of pregnant workers, but fails to do the same for pregnant women. The result of the case was a decisive victory for the Department of Justice and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

While the outcome in this instance is positive, most pregnancy discrimination claims are markedly less successful. Pregnancy discrimination complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and local Fair Employment Practices Agencies grew from approximately 4,000 in the late 1990s to nearly 6,000 by 2011. Between 1996 and 2005, pregnancy discrimination claims increased 25%, with a startling 76% increase among women of color. Furthermore, low-wage workers face pregnancy discrimination at a higher rate than their higher earning counterparts. Importantly, despite the increase in claims, most cases are unsuccessful. In the case of officers Trischler and Riley, the context may have made this case easier to settle than most. EEOC claims rarely involve women in law enforcement, a field that is both male dominated and physically taxing. Given the particular context, this case may present a particularly clear and egregious instance of pregnancy discrimination.

However, the outcome here may have very little impact in cases where the facts are less clear-cut or sympathetic. If the current trend continues, claims of pregnancy discrimination will continue to rise, and women will continue to find little help from the legal system. To fulfill the purposes of the Title VII and the ADA, Congress may have to pass additional legislation. Congress twice considered a Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which would mandate reasonable accommodations for all pregnancy-related limitations, but nothing has come of those efforts. Without further congressional action, outcomes such as the one attained by the Justice Department in this instance will continue to be the exception, rather than the rule.

*Kamika is a 2L at Harvard Law School and an Online Editor for HLPR.

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