A California employer and its HR director just learned a tough lesson: Terminating a pregnant employee because she has minor medical restrictions can be very expensive.

The move may mean you have to make the employee financially whole—plus pay a large punitive damage award and attorneys’ fees.

Here’s the best way to handle temporary medical restrictions associated with pregnancy: First, review the medical restrictions with the employee and see which tasks she can still perform that are part of her regular job. If that proves impractical, consider a temporary assignment.

Don’t do what the HR director did in the following case.

Recent case: Yaire Lopez was a single mother of two young children who worked for Bimbo Bakeries. When she became pregnant again, she had sole responsibility for a mortgage and the children. She needed the health care benefits that came with her job as a driver for the bakery.

Lopez developed diabetes and therefore needed frequent breaks to inject insulin and eat. Her health care provider also placed restrictions on how much she could lift in a given shift.

When Lopez presented the medical form to her supervisor, he immediately contacted HR for help. Within an hour, the HR director had concluded that Lopez could not do her job while pregnant and told the supervisor to send Lopez home.

Lopez was told she could take 12 weeks of FMLA leave, but would then lose her job and her benefits. No one contacted either the health care provider or Lopez before placing her on medical leave.

Lopez became depressed and contemplated an abortion even though it was against her religious beliefs. Then she learned she was carrying twins and changed her mind.

She sued instead, and a jury found the company and the HR director guilty of pregnancy discrimination and sex discrimination, as well as wrongful termination.

The jury awarded Lopez $340,700 and another $2 million in punitive damages plus an additional $1 million for her attorneys.

The bakery appealed, to no avail. The California Court of Appeal said that when an employer acts with the knowledge that it may be in violation of the law, it acts with malice or reckless indifference. That’s the standard for punitive damages, which are meant to discourage the sort of callousness used by the HR director and company in this case. The court said that Lopez was particularly vulnerable, given that she was a single mother carrying twins who wanted to keep her job. (Lopez v. Bimbo Bakeries, No. A1199263, California Court of Appeal, 1st Appellate Division, 2009)

Final notes:
There are two lessons in this case:

  1. Everyone who makes HR decisions must thoroughly know the law. Remember, if it is your job to know the law, then you will be held responsible if you don’t educate yourself.
  2. Always consider how your actions will play in front of a jury.

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