Postpartum depression is a devastating illness that can impair a woman’s ability to perform tasks both at home and at work. Typically, the condition develops one or more months after pregnancy and can cause sleeplessness, feelings of being withdrawn, loss of energy, loss of concentration, and significant anxiety. Unfortunately, postpartum depression discrimination is familiar to employment lawyers given the frequency with which these violations occur, likely because the need for disability accommodations for postpartum depression come immediately after an employer has already accommodated the same employee’s pregnancy and is feeling less than enthusiastic about permitting more missed work. Fortunately, a recent Iowa Federal District Court ruling has warned employers that hasty and discriminatory terminations in response to an employees postpartum depression diagnosis is inappropriate and unlawful.
Last week, a disability discrimination lawsuit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on behalf of a Human Resources Coordinator, Crystal Wirstiuk, was settled for $90,500. The EEOC brought failure to accommodate and disability discrimination claims against MISO for terminating Ms. Wirstiuk after she had asked for a leave of absence to recover from postpartum depression.
Ms. Wirstiuk had been working at Midwest Independent Transmission Systems (MISO) for over a year when she took a leave of absence in August of 2009 under the FMLA to give birth to her child. Ms. Wirstiuk had worked from October to January when she asked her manager for a 30 day leave of absence to deal with extreme anxiety and depression issues. Shortly after Ms. Wirstiuk’s leave began, her doctor sent two letters to her manager updating him of her ongoing postpartum complications and requesting that her leave be extended to April 2, 2010.
At this time, Ms. Wirstiuk’s manager, a Human Resources Generalist and the Vice President of Human Resources met and decided to terminate Ms. Wirstiuk because her continued absence was creating “work flow issues.” The Court, however, found that although an extended leave of absence is not normally considered a reasonable accommodation, the EEOC provided sufficient evidence to show that this was a special circumstance that merited unique consideration. In other words, providing Ms. Wirstiuk with an extended leave of absence would have enabled her to return to return to work able to perform her job, qualifying her leave as reasonable.
Although MISO claimed that attendance was a crucial aspect of Ms. Wirstiuk’s position, the EEOC also brought attention to the key fact that MISO did not hire someone to fill Ms. Wirstiuk’s position until months after her leave began, proving a lack of urgency. Notably, when MISO extended an offer to the job candidate, she accepted with the agreement that she too would take a three month leave of absence before beginning, which was allowed by MISO.
If you believe that you have been a victim of disability discrimination or have been denied a reasonable accommodation, contact an attorney who has an in depth knowledge of your legal protections under the ADA. You may be able to bring either a disability discrimination or pregnancy discrimination claim against your employer, even if you have been out of the workplace for longer periods of time than are normally permitted under the FMLA.