Circuit Reinstates Pregnancy Bias Suit Against Ulster Jail
A new trial has been ordered for a corrections officer who alleged she suffered discrimination because superiors at the Ulster County Jail would not assign her light duty while she was pregnant.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit on Tuesday reversed a lower court judge who had dismissed the case that corrections officer Ann Marie Legg brought against Ulster County and County Sheriff Paul VanBlarcum.
The reason for reinstating Legg v. Ulster County, 14-3636, was a change in the law by the U.S. Supreme Court, the circuit said.
Legg had brought claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, 42 §2000e, saying the jail, which allows light duty for employees injured on the job, should have treated her in the same way.
Light duty meant a shift to clerical or other work that does not aggravate the employee's condition. Legg had her doctor send a note to the sheriff in 2008 saying Legg had a high-risk pregnancy and "was able to work but shouldn't have direct contact with inmates."
VanBlarcum told Undersheriff Frank Faluotico to deny the request and, on July 10, 2008, Faluotico told Legg the light duty policy was only for employees injured on the job. He allegedly urged her to be re-evaluated by her physician and suggested she use accrued time off and file for disability.
On the same day, Legg was informed by Lt. Jon Becker that he would assign her to light duty after she provided a doctor's note that said she was "able to work with no restrictions."
By August, she was back to working with inmates again. In November, while about seven months pregnant, Legg saw two inmates fighting in a bathroom. One of the inmates bumped into her as he ran out of the bathroom. She left work, went home and did not return to the jail until after she gave birth.
She sued in the Northern District and, after the close of her direct case, Judge Frederick Scullin granted a defense motion for judgment as a matter of law, finding the policy was not discriminatory because it was facially neutral with respect to pregnancy.
Legg appealed to the Second Circuit and, during her appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its opinion in Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., 135 S. Ct. 1338 (2015).
Judge Barrington Parker, writing for the circuit, explained that Young found that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act is violated when pregnant employees are treated "'less favorably' than non-pregnant employees similar in their ability or inability to work to such an extent that it is more likely than not that the disparity is the result of intentional discrimination."
Parker said Young modified burden-shifting framework in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973), for Title VII claims of pregnancy discrimination to put the focus on "'whether the nature of the employer's policy and the way in which it burdens pregnant women shows that the employer has engaged in intentional discrimination'."
Under this analysis, if a plaintiff establishes a prima facie case that it was more likely than not an action was discriminatory, a presumption of discrimination arises, and the burden shifts to the employer to show a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the action. If the employer does so, the presumption is gone, and it is then up to the plaintiff to establish by a preponderance of the evidence that the justification was merely a pretext for actual discrimination.
Legg established a prima facie case, but the county answered with what Parker called an apparently "neutral" reason for limiting light duty to those injured on the job —N.Y. General Municipal Law §207-c(1), which requires that correction officers continue to be paid after being injured on the job.
With the burden now back on Legg, Parker said she had presented enough evidence that a reasonable jury could find this justification was a pretext. He said it was only now that the "neutral" reason cited by the county came to light, as "neither VanBlarcum, nor anyone else, ever testified that this was his reason for denying accommodations to pregnant employees."
Legg, the Circuit concluded, had enough to get to trial under Young.
"A reasonable jury could conclude that the defendants imposed a significant burden on pregnant employees because, like UPS, the County categorically denied light duty accommodations to pregnant women," Parker said.
The court rejected the defense "implication" that an employer can justify pregnancy discrimination by relying upon the fact that pregnant employees constitute an insignificant part of its workforce. Nor did it accept the argument that Legg was not significantly burdened because she was able to perform her regular duties and then elected to stop working—an argument belied by the facts.
"Moreover, regardless of Legg's particular circumstances, we think that when an accommodation policy excludes pregnant employees from coverage and thereby places them at risk of violent confrontations, a reasonable jury could find that the denial itself is evidence of a significant burden," Parker said in a ruling joined by Judges Gerard Lynch and Susan Carney.
Stephen Bergstein of Bergstein & Ullrich in Chester; Brendon Klaproth of Klaproth Law in Washington, D.C.; and Joseph Ranni of the Ranni Law Offices in Florida, New York, represented Legg.
Bergstein said he is looking forward to trial. "This is the first time our Court of Appeals has applied Young," he said. "The opinion is pretty clear about what happened here."
Matthew Kelly and Amanda Davis Twinam, partners at Roemer Wallens Gold & Mineaux, represent the county. Kelly said Wednesday the county is confident of prevailing at trial.
"The opinion does set forth that the county has regularly had a policy of accommodating people with on-the-job injuries and not off-the-job injuries and even at the trial, the county can present that position," Kelly said. "Having a policy that was nondiscriminatory, we will be found to have not discriminated against Miss Legg; we have a number of people who are hurt off the job who are not allowed light duty and because we have this uniformity of approach, we believe our position is fully defensible."