November 1996

Workplace Labor Update - Medical Conditions Tied to Pregnancy Require Maternity Leave – November 1996

3 min

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, the federal appeals court with jurisdiction over the mid-Atlantic region, recently held that an employer that terminated an employee who requested extra maternity leave to recover from medical complications arising out of her pregnancy must pay that employee $90,000 in back pay, mental anguish, and punitive damages for violating Title VII and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Notter v. North Hand Protection, 89 F.3d 829 (4th Cir. 1996).

Linda Notter was hired by North Hand, a South Carolina glove manufacturer, as a secretary in September 1990. In June 1991, Notter informed her immediate supervisor, Mr. Grigg, that she was pregnant. In response, Grigg allegedly asked seemingly intrusive and disapproving questions such as whether she had been using birth control, whether she knew who the father was, and what her parents thought about her being pregnant and unmarried.

In late December 1991, Notter received a positive performance review, in which Grigg noted that she was "an expectant unwed mother." Notter went into labor in early January 1992 and her labor was difficult. As a result, Notter needed an extended recovery period due to lingering back pain and discomfort, for which she sought chiropractic treatment from January through March. The company's maternity leave policy stated only that the period of maternity leave would be determined by the attending physician in each case. The company had no predetermined schedule for either the timing or duration of maternity leave of absence.

In early March, Ms. Beamguard, the company's employment supervisor, unsuccessfully attempted to contact Notter's attending physician to obtain a medical reason for Notter's extended leave. Beamguard then spoke with the secretary to the anesthesiologist who was present at Notter's delivery and obtained a release form signed by the secretary, stating that Notter was able to return to work two weeks earlier, in late February. Beamguard never spoke with Notter's primary attending physician. Several days later on March 16, 1992, Grigg wrote a letter to Notter, stating that he was accepting her "voluntary termination." When Notter's attending physician phoned the company, Beamguard denied having fired her. At trial, the company claimed that Notter was fired for failing to supply an adequate medical reason for remaining on maternity leave.

A jury found in Notter's favor and awarded her $30,000 in back pay, $10,000 for mental anguish and related losses, and $50,000 in punitive damages. On appeal, the appeals court pointed out that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act prohibits discrimination due to pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. The appeals court upheld the jury's conclusion that Notter was protected by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act because her incapacitating medical condition was undeniably caused by her child birth.

The appeals court further upheld the jury's finding that the reason North Hand offered for the discharge was a pretext for discrimination, because there was ample circumstantial evidence of the company's discriminatory motive, including Grigg's early insensitive comments to Notter, the notation Grigg placed on Notter's performance evaluation, as well as the manner in which she was fired. Finally, the appeals court noted that the company's sparsely worded policy was reasonably interpreted by Notter to mean that she could rely solely on her attending physician's decision that she should remain on leave. The court observed that the policy did not expressly require an employee to submit new medical justification for requesting extended maternity leave.

This case is important because it highlights the need for employers to adopt maternity leave policies which describe in complete terms the obligations that will be expected of pregnant employees. Employers will be well served by adopting such policies and, even then, consistent and equal application of those policies will be critical to avoiding Title VII liability.