By Morris L. Hawk
As the issue of pregnancy discrimination heats up nationwide, the issue recently came to the forefront in the Midwest after the Ohio Supreme Court issued an important decision regarding maternity leave requirements that could affect future court cases nationwide.
In the decision from McFee v. Nursing Care Mgt. of Am., Inc, issued on June 22, the court held that an employer is not required to grant maternity leave to a pregnant employee who does not meet the minimum length of service requirement under the employer’s leave policy. The Court made clear that Ohio’s discrimination statute only requires that an employer grant leave to a pregnant employee under the same rules that apply to all of its employees.
The case involved a woman named Tiffany McFee who was employed at the Pataskala Oaks nursing home near Columbus. Like many employers, Pataskala Oaks had a leave policy that required all employees to work for a certain period of time before they were entitled to leave from work. The nursing home’s policy required that an employee work for at least a year before the employee would be eligible for leave.
McFee sought to take leave due to a medical condition related to her pregnancy after working for Pataskala Oaks for only eight months. Her request was denied, but she took the leave anyway and was terminated. She then filed a claim challenging her termination with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission (OCRC). The OCRC took the position that Ohio law required Pataskala Oaks to provide McFee with maternity leave and that its failure to do so constituted sex discrimination.
Behind the Ohio Civil Rights Commission Decision
To support its decision, the OCRC primarily relied upon a regulation that the agency had issued in 2007, providing that the termination of a pregnant employee under a leave policy offering “insufficient or no maternity leave” constituted unlawful sex discrimination.
The trial court disagreed with the OCRC and found in favor of Pataskala Oaks. But the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court decision and held that Ohio’s sex discrimination statute, along with the OCRC’s regulation interpreting the statute, expressly required all employers to provide pregnant employees with a reasonable period of maternity leave.
The Ohio Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals’ decision, concluding that both the Court of Appeals and the OCRC had misread Ohio’s sex discrimination law. The Court held that although Ohio law prohibits discrimination based upon pregnancy or pregnancy-related illnesses, the statute’s plain language only requires that pregnant women “be treated the same for all employment-related purposes as other [nonpregnant employees who are] similar in their ability or inability to work.”
The Court concluded that Pataskala Oak’s leave policy did, in fact, treat all employees the same. All were subject to the requirement that they work at least a year before becoming eligible for leave. Thus, Pataskala Oaks did not terminate McFee because she was pregnant but rather because she took unauthorized leave prior to completing a year of employment. As the Court noted, to hold otherwise would require Pataskala Oaks to treat McFee more favorably than other employees (which the statute does not require).
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Finally, the Court held that the OCRC’s regulation (which seemingly mandated maternity leave) could not be interpreted to provide more rights to employees than exist under Ohio’s sex discrimination statute. Several employer groups that had joined in the case urged the Court to expressly rule the OCRC’s regulation unconstitutional.
Why this decision is important for employers
The Court chose not to do so but effectively accomplished the same result by holding that the regulation could not be interpreted to mandate maternity leave for pregnant employees who did not otherwise meet an employer’s leave requirements.
The McFee decision is an important victory for all employers for two reasons. First, it affirms that employers have the ability to implement and enforce minimum-length-of-service leave policies so long as those policies are consistently applied to all employees. Second, the Court sent a clear message to the OCRC that it cannot legislate by regulation, and that any extension of employee rights in Ohio must come from the General Assembly.
Although the McFee decision concerns Ohio law, it is likely a preliminary skirmish in a broader national battle between the courts and state and federal regulatory agencies (particularly the U.S. Department of Labor and the EEOC). These agencies increasingly are attempting to extend the reach of existing employment laws by issuing regulations and guidance that interpret the laws in the broadest possible manner.
The Ohio Supreme Court put the brakes on the OCRC in McFee. Hopefully, other courts will look to McFee when deciding similar issues nationwide.