Courts continue to expand what is protected under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA). The Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and the Virgin Islands, recently ruled that abortion is an activity protected by the PDA. Then, on Wednesday, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments were also covered under the Act.
The lower court had ruled that in vitro fertility treatments were not covered under the PDA on the ground that infertility affects both men and women. On July 16, the Appeals Court overturned that decision. The Appeals Court ruled that the plaintiff’s in vitro fertilization — like many fertility treatments — was gender-specific because it was related to childbearing, which affects only women.
“Employees terminated for taking time off to undergo IVF — just like those terminated for taking time off to give birth or receive other pregnancy-related care — will always be women,” the ruling said.
Facts of the Case
The plaintiff took a leave of absence for IVF, a complicated procedure wherein eggs are extracted, fertilized and then surgically implanted in the womb.
She took one three-week leave of absence for the procedure and then applied for another three-week leave after learning that the first in vitro was unsuccessful. Meanwhile, the company had been reorganizing and decided to eliminate a sales secretary position: hers.
Her supervisor told her that termination was in her own best interest due to her “health condition,” according to the Seventh Circuit decision. He had consulted with an employee relations manager over eliminating the position, who took note of the plaintiff’s “absenteeism — fertility treatments.”
The employer argued that a regional sales manager unaware of the in vitro treatment had made the decision to eliminate the plaintiff’s position in favor of keeping the other, more qualified sales secretary.
Protection Under Other Federal Employment Laws
Fertility treatments may also be covered under the ADA and the FMLA. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that inability to procreate is a “major life activity,” therefore treatment to combat infertility is most likely protected and you must “accommodate” the employee as you would any other qualifying disability (such as cancer). Also, fertility treatments probably qualify as a “serious health condition” under the FMLA.
This case continues to expand the definition of “pregnancy and related medical conditions” under the PDA. Given the likely coverage of fertility treatments by a number of federal laws, tread carefully when making employment decisions related to employees undergoing such treatments.
In addition, the facts serve to remind us of some basic employment law tenets:
(1) Focus on the performance, not the reason – there is no reason anyone (an HR person, no less!) needed to note “fertility treatments” in documentation related to performance;
(2) A “downsizing of one” is always tough to defend – if a termination is due to performance, make it about performance and make sure you have the documentation to support it; don’t call it a “downsizing” when only one person is affected; and
(3) Beware of “benevolent intent” – many managers get into hot water making employment decisions based on their opinion of “what is best” for the employee. Remember the decision about “what is best” should be made only by the employee.