Ronald Wahl is a police officer for the Suffolk County, New York Police Department. Wahl’s child was born on December 20, 1999, and on January 14, 2000, Wahl requested that he be permitted to take maternity leave and deduct the days taken from his accrued sick leave. Department rules and procedures and the applicable collective bargaining agreement permitted a pregnant female officer to take nine months of leave after birth and use accrued sick leave before being taken off of the payroll. The contract also permits a parent to take nine months of “child care leave” during which accrued sick time cannot be used.
Wahl was informed that “maternity leave” was only available to pregnant female officers, and told that he was eligible to take child care leave pursuant to the contract or leave pursuant to the Family and Medical Leave Act. The same sequence of events was repeated in 2007, when Wahl’s wife gave birth to another child. This time, Wahl sued the County, claiming the maternity leave policy amounted to illegal gender discrimination.
A federal trial court rejected Wahl’s arguments. The Court reasoned that “for a gender-based classification to withstand equal protection scrutiny, it must be established at least that the [challenged] classification serves important governmental objectives and that the discriminatory means employed are substantially related to the achievement of those objectives. Wahl acknowledges that protecting pregnant women in the workplace is an important governmental objective. He contends that the maternity leave policy is not substantially related to the objective because the distinction ‘is not attributable to any different physical needs of men and women’ on the basis that ‘a woman can take the leave even if she is capable of working.’ He argues that ‘the policy does not require any showing that the pregnancy affects a woman’s ability to work,’ and that once a woman has given birth ‘she is no longer pregnant’ and therefore the policy should treat new mothers and fathers the same.
“The maternity leave policy is narrowly drawn to cover the governmental interest in protecting pregnant mothers. Modern era pregnancy and childbirth involve a number of medical procedures and recovery time, which require repeated visits to specialized doctors and time to address and investigate a variety of possible complications. The provision allowing women who are actually pregnant to use accrued sick leave is narrowly tailored to address these concerns.
“Notably, all employees are permitted to take the same time as child care leave after the birth of a child. Men and women who are not pregnant are treated equally. Men and women who are not pregnant may use their accrued vacation leave and personal leave days in lieu of maternity leave, should they choose to do so. Although it is true that only women are capable of pregnancy, narrowly tailored accommodations of pregnancy are permitted by the equal protection clause, and are sometimes required by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978. The ability to use accrued sick days while on post birth leave is narrowly tailored to the specific needs of an employee who is actually pregnant or has just given birth.”
Wahl v. County of Suffolk, 2011 WL 1004879 (E.D. N.Y. 2011).
This article appears in the August 2011 issue