California law requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees who are pregnant, including by providing pregnancy leaves. But what happens if pregnant employees claim they are suffering from depression after their pregnancy leaves end? How extensive must an employer's accommodations be, and how long should they last? And what must the employee establish?

These issues were the focus of a case recently decided by the California Court of Appeal (Lopez v La Casa De Las Madres).

In 2002, Gabriela Lopez began working for La Casa de Las Madres, a San Francisco non-profit that provides services to women and children who are victims of domestic violence.

In 2014, Lopez was promoted to the position of manager at a residential shelter run by La Casa – a challenging position.

To protect residents against violent partners, La Casa does not reveal the location of the shelter. The residents themselves can be dangerous, sometimes bringing firearms or other weapons to the shelter. The work is so stressful that La Casa provides counseling to all shelter employees.

As shelter manager, Lopez was expected to work 30 hours per week at the shelter, spend another 10 hours on administrative tasks, and be on call at all times for emergencies. If one of the 10 workers she supervised was absent, Lopez had to arrange for another employee to cover the shift, or fill in herself.

In February of 2016, Lopez informed La Casa that she was pregnant, and that she was expecting in September. La Casa's human resources manager advised Lopez of her pregnancy disability rights, which included four months of leave and a concurrent 12-week “baby-bonding” leave.

Lopez began her pregnancy-disability leave on August 16, 2016. The HR department informed her that her return-to-work date was November 8. La Casa assigned several people to handle the shelter manager duties, including some managers senior to Lopez.

Lopez gave birth to a baby girl in September. She then extended her leave beyond November 8, submitting several certifications from her doctor. La Casa changed her return date to December 16, the date her pregnancy disability leave was set to expire.

Lopez’s physician then sent La Casa a report stating that she should not return until January 14, 2017. La Casa told Lopez it would treat this as a “request for accommodation” under California's Fair Employment and Housing Act, or FEHA.

When La Casa requested additional information, her health-care organization provided a form, signed by a mental health social worker, stating that Lopez had a “moderate-severe” disability that limited her ability to do activities that are “stress-producing or require sustained attention,” or that involve making “important or significant decisions.”

The social worker stated that Lopez should be assigned work that allowed her to take time off for mental health treatment and to leave work if she felt overwhelmed, anxious, or depressed. The duration of these limitations was “unknown,” the social worker wrote, and there was no indication that the depression was related to the pregnancy.

La Casa determined that it could not accommodate the proposed limitations. It could provide time off for therapy, but could not function indefinitely without a shelter manager, and that the job could not be performed “without making significant decisions and facing stressful situations at unpredictable times.”

The organization told Lopez she could continue her leave until January 14 and then return as a data entry worker, a position that paid less but had flexible hours and did not involve stressful tasks. This would be a temporary placement, until Lopez was able to return to her shelter manager role.

Lopez said she was not interested in the data entry role, and claimed she was able to return as shelter manager.

La Casa asked her health-care organization for more information, and was informed late in January that Lopez had not been seen in a month because she had allowed her insurance to lapse. Lopez submitted another form on January 26, 2017, but did not respond to "further repeated inquiries" from La Casa.

On February 6, 2017, La Casa sent a letter to Lopez saying it considered that Lopez had “elected to discontinue her employment.” Lopez went to La Casa’s administrative offices, threw her keys on the HR manager’s desk, and “stormed away,” at which point La Casa considered her to have resigned.

Lopez filed a lawsuit against La Casa in June of 2018, alleging a number of violations of the FEHA, including pregnancy discrimination, wrongful termination, harassment, disability discrimination, failure to accommodate her disability, and other claims.

Lopez testified that she felt sad and depressed after her daughter was born, but other evidence indicated that she was depressed and experiencing stress even before her pregnancy leave began.

She did not submit any medical records or testimony from medical professionals. Although she did provide the documents from the social worker, these discussed only her mental health, with no mention of any relationship to her pregnancy.

The trial court ruled against Lopez, finding that she failed to establish that the condition for which she sought an accommodation was related to her pregnancy.

In addition, the trial judge determined that Lopez had failed to show that she would be able to perform the essential functions of her “inherently stressful” job if she was granted reasonable accommodations.

Lopez appealed, but the appellate justices agreed with the trial judge.

The Court of Appeal observed that no published decision articulated the elements of a pregnancy discrimination claim under FEHA, and concluded that the elements were:

  • the plaintiff had a condition related to pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition;
  • the plaintiff requested accommodation of this condition, with the advice of her health care provider;
  • the plaintiff’s employer refused to provide a reasonable accommodation; and
  • with the reasonable accommodation, the plaintiff could have performed the essential functions of the job.

Although Lopez confirmed that she had a mental-health disability after her pregnancy leave ended, she failed to prove that that disability was related to her pregnancy. And the evidence did not support her contention that she could successfully fulfill the high-pressure role of shelter manager even with the accommodations she had requested.

The Court of Appeal found the trial court had correctly applied these elements, affirmed the trial judge's ruling, and awarded La Casa its costs on appeal.

By David Krol