A New Jersey appellate court recently reinstated an employee’s suit for wrongful termination after finding that she presented a prima facie case of pregnancy discrimination. The woman, a medical technician at a doctor’s office, refused to wash windows because she was diagnosed with a high-risk pregnancy and was subsequently fired. The employer claims that she was fired for insubordination, but, according to the lawsuit, that explanation is merely a pretext for termination.
The employee had worked in the doctor’s office for two years. During her last year of employment, she notified her employer that she was pregnant and that her pregnancy was diagnosed as high-risk and that she would have to see her doctor on a weekly basis. She later allegedly overheard one of the doctors telling the other that she was a liability and that same day, one of the doctors asked her to wash floor-to-ceiling windows. The employee’s duties did not include washing windows and she refused because she would have had to climb a ladder to complete the task, something she was advised not to do because of her high-risk pregnancy.
The doctor asked her once again to wash the windows, and when she refused, she was fired. The employee filed a lawsuit for wrongful termination and the trial court dismissed the case, finding that insubordination was a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the employee’s firing and not a pretext for termination. The trial judge also found that the employee failed to seek an accommodation and that although her pregnancy was diagnosed as high-risk, she was not under any work restrictions. The employee appealed the ruling of summary judgment and the Superior Court of New Jersey’s Appellate Division reinstated the suit, ruling that the employee did in fact present a prima facie case of pregnancy discrimination.
Adverse Employment Actions
Citing a 2014 amendment to the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) including pregnancy as a protected characteristic, the appellate panel found that the employee was part of a protected class of workers and therefore successfully made a prima facie case for disparate treatment. The appellate panel also stated that ordering her to wash windows – a task outside of her job description – was an adverse employment action. Other non-pregnant workers were not required to wash windows and the employer knew of her high-risk pregnancy, therefore her firing raised an inference of unlawful discrimination. The panel ruled that the employee’s case should have survived summary judgment regardless of whether her request for weekly doctor’s visits was a pregnancy accommodation.