When new provisions are added to existing statutes, it is often difficult to determine how the new language interacts with the preexisting statutory scheme.
This was highlighted in a recent case where the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that the existing requirement that workers had to be employed for a year before seeking a parental leave did not apply to pregnant employees seeking on-the-job accommodations.
Hennepin County hired Whitney Hinrichs-Cady as a social worker in September 2016. She was pregnant at the time of her hire. Her position required visits to children’s homes to investigate abuse and neglect allegations. During these visits she was sometimes exposed to unsafe conditions such as cigarette and marijuana smoke and other drug use. After fainting during an in-home visit due to an iron deficiency, Hinrichs-Cady’s doctor issued her a list of job restrictions for the remaining seven weeks of her pregnancy which included not working for more than an hour without rest, lifting and driving restrictions, and not being exposed to unhealthy or unsafe environments.
Hinrichs-Cady’s direct supervisor was dismissive of her doctor’s restrictions and required her to continue performing her job duties as usual until a formal decision on the requested accommodations was made. Subsequently, Hinrichs-Cady’s requested accommodations were denied and she was placed on unrequested leave which was unpaid in February 2017. She then received an employment termination letter the day she returned to work after giving birth in June 2017.
Leave v. Accommodation
Hinrichs-Cady sued the County on various counts, one of them for violation of the 2014 Pregnancy and Parenting Leave Act (PPLA) which added a duty to accommodate pregnant employees to a group of Minnesota laws addressing the need to offer such employees a parenting leave of absence. However, the trial court dismissed the claim, finding that since the statute defines a protected employee to be one who has worked for the employer for at least 12 months, the fact that Hinrichs-Cady was terminated after just 9 months meant that she was not protected under the law. Hinrichs-Cady appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.
The Appeals Court reversed the dismissal of Hinrichs-Cady’s claims, ruling that the requirement that she be employed for at least 12 months did not apply to her request for pregnancy accommodations. The Court explained that the 12-month requirement previously applied to a statutory scheme that only addressed requests for leave, and that the definition section states that it applies only to “an employer from whom leave is requested”(emphasis added).
The Court of Appeals reasoned that when the accommodation language was added, the legislature understood the distinction between requests for non-leave accommodations and leaves, and by leaving the language as they did, they presumably intended to apply the 12-month requirement only to requests for leave. As a result, pregnant employees with less than12 months of tenure may still seek non-leave accommodations under the PPLA.
Even when the facts of a case seem straightforward, the patchwork nature of Minnesota’s ever-evolving employment statutes requires nuanced statutory interpretation and analysis. We all know that there are two sides to every argument, and a lawyer willing to argue each side.
What we know for certain is that unless this case is reversed again, pregnant employees in Minnesota do not have to have to be employed for a year before seeking accommodations.