Employee Loses Pregnancy Discrimination Claim Failed to Prove Related Condition

Employee Loses Pregnancy Discrimination Claim Because She Failed To Carry Her Burden Of Proving That She Had A Condition Related To Pregnancy; Could Perform The Essential Functions Of The Job; And Was Denied A Reasonable Accommodation – The Moral Of This Case Is To Never, Ever Use Kaiser As Your Physician

Lopez v. La Casa de Las Madres, 89 Cal.App.5th 365 (2023)

Gabriela Lopez was employed by La Casa De Las Madres, a non-profit organization that provides services to women and children who are victims of domestic violence. In April, Lopez notified La Casa that she was pregnant and that her expected due date was in September. She was placed on modified work duty a few months before her due date, and several weeks before her due date, she was placed off work due to conditions or symptoms relating to her pregnancy.

After giving birth, Lopez experienced complications and her doctor (Kaiser) informed La Casa that Lopez had a “moderate-severe” disability that affected her ability to perform her job by limiting her from engaging in activities that are “stress producing or require sustained attention,” and those that “require the making of important or significant decisions.” Kaiser stated that this disability necessitated two modifications to Lopez’s work duties: (1) time off to allow Lopez to continue mental health treatment, both groups and individual therapy; and (2) flexible/shortened workdays if the patient finds the nature of the work or stress of the work overwhelming and triggering of severe anxiety/depressive symptoms. On a section of the form inquiring how long these limitations would be necessary, Kaiser stated, “It is unknown,” and when asked to provide a phone number for follow-up questions, Kaiser stated, “NA, patient had to sign Kaiser release of information and completing this form was the only authorized action.”

La Casa made a determination that it could not accommodate the limitations that Campion proposed. It could provide time off for therapy but could not function indefinitely without a shelter manager. Nor could that job be performed without making significant decisions and facing stressful situations at unpredictable times.

La Casa notified Lopez that it was unable to accommodate the limitations proposed by Kaiser. Instead, La Casa offered to extend Lopez’s leave for a short time longer and, upon her return to work, to assign her to a “Data Entry Specialist position,” which had flexible hours and did not involve stressful tasks. The position paid an hourly wage, which was less pay than Lopez received as a shelter manager, but Lopez was offered higher pay than others who had filled the position. This data-entry position was offered as a “temporary accommodation,” with the expectation that Lopez would return to her shelter management role.

Lopez advised La Casa she was not interested in the data-entry position and that she was able to return to her role as a shelter manager. Lopez submitted another health care provider form, signed by Kaiser. This partially completed form contained the following statement: “Advised by patient to just complete modification section for employer.” In answer to a question about proposed modifications, Kaiser stated, “Modifications recommended include time off to continue individual therapy sessions and group therapy.” Kaiser reported that it was “unknown” how long modifications would be necessary.

La Casa advised Lopez that the form was incomplete and asked Lopez to submit a complete, updated form. Lopez submitted another form from Kaiser, which stated that it had not seen Lopez in a month because Lopez’s insurance had lapsed. Therefore, Kaiser was unable to assess the severity of Lopez’s disability, whether Lopez was able to perform job duties or the duration of any job limitations. After Lopez submitted this form, she did not respond to further repeated inquiries from La Casa.

A week or so later, La Casa sent a letter to Lopez stating that La Casa considered Lopez to have “elected to discontinue her employment.” That same day, Lopez went to La Casa’s administrative office to talk to the Executive Director without an appointment, but the ED was not there. La Casa introduced evidence that Lopez was angry, threw her keys on an employee’s desk, and stormed away, at which point La Casa considered her to be a former employee. Lopez testified that she left her keys with the employee because she thought she had been terminated, but she acknowledged that La Casa never asked her to turn in her keys. Regardless, the evidence showed that Lopez never stated that she resigned or submitted a written resignation, and no one at La Casa told Lopez she was terminated.

Lopez sued for a pregnancy discrimination claim under section 12945, subdivision (a)(3)(A). Following the bench trial, the trial court found that Lopez failed to establish three elements essential to this claim: that she (1) “had a condition related to pregnancy”; (2) “could perform the essential functions of her job”; and (3) “was denied a reasonable accommodation,” as requested on the advice of a health-care provider.

There was evidence that after Lopez had her baby and exhausted her pregnancy-disability leave, she sought an extension of her leave, but the basis for that extension was not established at trial. No medical professional testified, no medical records were offered into evidence, and Lopez “repeatedly objected” to evidence regarding the “medical condition” that formed the basis of her claim.

Regarding the first finding, there was evidence that after Lopez had her baby and exhausted her pregnancy-disability leave, she sought an extension of her leave, but the basis for that extension was not established at trial. No medical professional testified, no medical records were offered into evidence, and Lopez “repeatedly objected” to evidence regarding the “medical condition” that formed the basis of her claim. The forms Kaiser signed did not contain a diagnosis and, although they assert a mental-health-related disability, do not so much mention pregnancy. La Case put on evidence that it was unaware of the reason Lopez sought to extend her leave. Lopez testified that after her daughter was born, she felt sad and depressed, attended therapy, and was given medication, which, the court found, suggested that Lopez may have had post-partum depression, but Lopez was impeached with evidence that she was depressed and experiencing stress before her pregnancy leave began. For all of these reasons, the court concluded that Lopez failed to establish that the condition for which she sought accommodation was pregnancy related.

Even assuming that La Casa “inferred” Lopez was suffering from pregnancy-related depression, Lopez failed to establish that “she could perform the essential functions of her job with a reasonable accommodation,” the court found. The court based this finding on evidence that Kaiser had “advised against activities that produced stress and that required making important decisions” and that the shelter-manager job “was inherently stressful and required quick decisions that sometimes meant the difference between life and death.” In reaching this conclusion, the court found that Lopez’s testimony that she did not find the duties of the shelter manager to be stressful was not credible.

Finally, the court found that Lopez failed to prove that she was denied a reasonable accommodation. The court found that La Casa would have allowed Lopez time off to attend therapy and that a “flexible or shortened workday” if Lopez found her work stressful was not a reasonable accommodation. The court based this ruling on evidence that La Casa had discussed options that would have enabled them to accommodate this second suggestion of Kaiser’s, including hiring a “shadow’ shelter manager” to step in if Lopez had to leave work due to stress or anxiety. La Casa had concluded this solution was “unworkable” for multiple reasons, including the cost of paying two people to do the same job and the confusion for staff of having two managers. La Casa was also concerned that effective communication would be critical for a shadow manager to succeed, and Lopez had a documented history of poor communication with her immediate supervisor, Ms. Bergson. During the period Lopez was on leave, Bergson had assumed many of Lopez’s duties with assistance from others, but that accommodation could not be sustained indefinitely, the court found.

The court also based its ruling on evidence that La Casa offered Lopez the temporary assignment of a data-entry position, which the court found was a reasonable accommodation, and that Lopez told La Casa she would rather quit than take that position. The court also found no evidence of a discriminatory motive by La Casa, but rather that “La Casa expected Ms. Lopez to return to her job as a shelter manager and made numerous efforts to effect that result.”

Lopez appealed, arguing that the trial court committed an error of law by placing the burden on Lopez to prove that (1) she had a condition related to pregnancy and (2) she could otherwise perform the essential functions of the shelter-manager position. According to Lopez, these two elements do not apply to a claim for pregnancy discrimination that is premised on a violation of section 12945(a)(3)(A). The Court of Appeal rejected these arguments holding: “we find no support for Lopez’s construction of section 12945(a)(3)(A) in the statutory language, FEHC regulations or pertinent case law, and accordingly we reject her contention that the test the trial court used to evaluate her pregnancy discrimination claim requires us to reverse the judgment.”

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