New Jersey Pregnancy Discrimination Case Can Be Heard By Jury, August 2017
The New Jersey Appellate Division has ruled, in Roopchand vs. Complete Care, et al, that a pregnant medical technician presented a prima facie case of pregnancy discrimination in her wrongful termination lawsuit when her former employer fired her for refusing to climb a ladder because her pregnancy was “high-risk.”
The Appellate Division reinstated Roopchand’s suit on August 3, 2017, after the Superior Court dismissed the case, holding that the employer articulated a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for Roopchand’s firing, her insubordination.
Sandra Roopchand worked at the medical office in 2013 and 2014. Her duties included both patient care and administrative duties. Her normal duties did not include cleaning windows. During her employment, plaintiff was never disciplined. In July 2014, she told Dr. Schaller, one of the two owners of the medical practice, that she was pregnant and that her pregnancy was high-risk, requiring her to see her obstetrician weekly. Later in the month, the Defendants reduced Roopchand’s work hours to a part-time schedule. The next day, she overheard Dr. Schaller telling the other owner, Dr. Fallon, “I don’t care, she’s a liability.” When Roopchand was busy working with a new patient who needed bloodwork and X-rays, Dr. Fallon came up to her and asked her to wash the windows on the second floor office. She told him, “I don’t do windows.” Roopchand testified that she did not think the doctor was serious about her washing the windows since it was not part of her job description nor was it something she had seen anyone working in the office do before. Moreover, she would have had to get up on a ladder to clean the floor to ceiling windows. Dr. Fallon asked her two more times, and she refused again, so he fired her.
The lower court had dismissed this case, finding that Roopchand’s refusal to follow Dr. Fallon’s directive to wash the windows constituted insubordination, and was a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for her firing. The court rejected Plaintiff’s claim that this was just a “pretext,” or an excuse to cover up the real, discriminatory reason for the termination. The court also noted that Ms. Roopchand’s doctor had not placed her on any work restrictions when she refused to wash the windows.
On appeal, the three judge, all female, panel looked to the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA), which modified the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination to incorporate “pregnancy” as a protected characteristic, for guidance. The Court held that Roopchand made out a prima facie case for disparate treatment under the PWFA because she was part of a protected class of pregnant workers and her employer knew of her pregnancy; she was performing her work duties; she suffered the adverse employment action of being demoted to part-time status, ordered to wash windows, and then fired; and she was required to perform an act outside the scope of her job description, that other non-pregnant employees were not required to perform, thereby raising an inference of unlawful discrimination.
The Court held that, regardless of whether Roopchand’s request to visit her doctor weekly is viewed as a pregnancy accommodation, she demonstrated sufficient evidence of pregnancy discrimination to survive summary judgment.
This case noteworthy because reversals on appeal of summary judgment are rare. The case will go back to the Law Division for a trial in the fall.