Ronald Wahl is an employee of the Suffolk County, New York Police Department. Wahl sued the City, alleging that he had been subject to a discriminatory maternity leave policy that provided benefits to women but not to men in violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Wahl also complained that he was a victim of retaliation in violation of the First Amendment and the Family and Medical Leave Act for complaining about this policy.
The federal Second Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed all of Wahl’s claims. As to the maternity leave policy, the Court concluded 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. Here, it is undisputed that protecting women in the workplace is an important governmental objective. Wahl, however, contends that the Suffolk County Police Department’s maternity leave policy is unconstitutional because it is not substantially related to this legitimate goal.
“Specifically, Wahl argues that the policy, which permits parents of both genders to take time off following the birth of a child, but allows only women who have given birth to use accrued sick days before being taken off payroll, is not attributable to any different physical needs of men and women because a woman can take the leave even if she is perfectly capable of working. This argument is unavailing because it overlooks the physical reality of childbirth, which entails a number of medical procedures and recovery time, and which requires repeated visits to specialized doctors and time to address and investigate a variety of possible complications. Thus, the contested policy is narrowly tailored to address the government’s valid interest.”
Wahl fared no better on his retaliation claim. The problem, the Court found, was that Wahl was an apt candidate for discipline long before he began complaining about the maternity leave program: “The flaw in this argument is that prior to his request for maternity leave in March 2007, Wahl had already been officially advised three times that the defendants were concerned about his misuse of sick time. Moreover, as the lower court noted, even if Wahl could demonstrate that his protected speech was a motivating factor in the defendants’ decision making, the defendants offered ample unrebutted evidence indicating that they would have taken the same steps to discipline Wahl even if he had not complained about the maternity leave policy.”
Wahl v. County of Suffolk, 2012 WL 593162 (2d Cir. 2012).