• Michigan High Court Finds No Discrimination Because of Neutral Disability Policy
  • October 21, 2003 | Authors: George D. Mesritz; Christopher M. Trebilcock
  • Law Firm: Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone, P.L.C. - Detroit Office
  • Recently, the Michigan Supreme Court nullified a $350,000 verdict in a pregnancy discrimination case because the adverse employment action at issue -- the revocation of a job offer to a woman who was on a pregnancy-related medical leave of absence -- resulted from the neutral operation of the company's long-term disability (LTD) policy.

    In Sniecinski v. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Michigan (BCBSM), Plaintiff, a telemarketing representative, claimed that a job offer extended during the merger of the marketing departments of Blue Care Network of East Michigan (BCN) and BCBSM had been revoked because of her pregnancy in violation of Michigan's Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.

    Between 1989 and 1992, while working for BCN, Sniecinski became pregnant twice and experienced complications, and took leaves, in both instances. It was during this period that the supervisor allegedly made multiple statements indicative of discriminatory animus, including a statement that he would "never hire anyone in child-bearing years again."

    In 1992, telemarketing positions at BCN were eliminated, including Sniecinski's, as a result of the planned merger. In an effort to find another job, Sniecinski applied for an account representative position at BCBSM. After an interview, during which her immediate supervisor asked about her prior pregnancy-related leaves, she was offered the position. Immediately thereafter, Sniecinski announced that she was pregnant again. She continued working full-time at BCN, until September 1993, when she again experienced pregnancy complications and commenced a short term medical leave of absence from BCN.

    Sniecinski inquired, in October 1993, whether the account representative position she had been offered would remain available to her when she returned to work. She was told that the position would be held for her only until she went on Long Term Disability (LTD), if her medical leave extended that long.

    Under BCN's LTD policy, an employee on medical leave converts from short-term to LTD status on the first day of the employee's sixth month off work, at which time the employee is terminated and is issued a final pay check. Sniecinski was separated from BCN pursuant to the LTD policy before she returned to work.

    In late May 1994, Sniecinski informed BCBSM that she was ready to return to work, but was told that the offered account representative position was no longer available. She then sued BCBSM for failing to hire her.

    At trial, Sniecinski relied primarily on her immediate supervisor's comments about her pregnancies in support of her claim that she was not hired as an account representative because of her pregnancy. The jury found in her favor and awarded substantial economic and emotional distress damages. The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed. Reversing those decisions, the Supreme Court agreed with BCBSM that there was no causal connection between Sniecinski's pregnancy and the revocation of the job offer.

    The Michigan Supreme Court concluded that Sniecinski had "failed as a matter of law to prove that [her supervisor's] remarks were causally related to BCBSM's failure to hire her." The job offer of the account representative position "expired under the terms of the neutral LTD policy." Thus, Sniecinski "failed to establish a causal nexus between her pregnancy and the adverse employment action."

    This case is significant because it establishes that employers may terminate employees pursuant to a neutral LTD policy, after six months of leave, and that the policy may be effectively asserted as a defense to a terminated employee's claim of discrimination.