The National Women’s Law Center recently filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Education that offers valuable insights for working mothers-to-be. Although arising in an educational context, the case has many aspects that are closely analogous to employment discrimination disputes. The complaint involves a woman who was attending a Missouri chiropractic school during a difficult pregnancy that terminated with a Caesarean section delivery. Associated medical complications apparently caused her to be unable to attend several class meetings and submit assignments on time.

College administrators offered her the option of either withdrawing from her doctoral-level professional studies or accepting a severe academic penalty for excessive absences. Because the absences were due to medical reasons, attorneys for the non-profit legal services organization contend that the school violated applicable federal statutes that prohibit sex discrimination by educational institutions.

Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act includes comparable federal provisions designed to safeguard employee rights by prohibiting employers from engaging in workplace discrimination by penalizing medical-related job absenteeism. This legislative prohibition extends to policies that seemingly have legitimate purposes yet result in race discrimination, age discrimination, disability discrimination, and/or religious discrimination.

This is often referred to as ‘disparate impact” discrimination, actions or policies that have disproportionately adverse impact on specific protected groups and applies even if internal policies or procedures are not deliberately discriminatory. The woman’s case is a perfect example of this type of subtle discrimination because it involves a health condition exclusive to females. As such, employer actions or practices that adversely affect pregnant women more than other workers may be legally impermissible.

Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “Mo. student punished for pregnancy settles claim”, December 10, 2013