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Welder Gets Trial on Disability Discrimination Claim

Heather Spees worked as one of the few female welders at James Marine, Inc. After she became pregnant and eventually lost her job, she sued her former employer for pregnancy discrimination and disability discrimination.

Ms. Spees' welding job was physically demanding and required her to lift heavy equipment, cram herself into small crevices, climb ladders, bear hot temperatures, deal with fumes and dust, and handle overhead equipment.

Ms. Spees' supervisor described her as a good employee and even ribbed the male employees about how well she performed in comparison to them. After she became pregnant, her doctors and supervisors both began imposing restrictions on Ms. Spees. Her job duties were altered and her doctors eventually prescribed bed rest.  The employer ultimately made the fatal decision to tell Ms. Spees that it was firing her because she was pregnant.

Ms. Spees included with her pregnancy discrimination claim a claim that the employer discriminated against her because of a disability when it transferred her to the "tool room" after learning that she was pregnant. Spees admittedly did have not a permanent disabling condition and it is well established that pregnancy alone does not constitute a disability for purposes of the ADA. So naturally, the main dispute in the disability discrimination case was whether Ms. Spees was "disabled" for purposes of the statute.

Spees' ADA claim hinged on her contention that the employer erroneously perceived her to be disabled "based on her history of conditions with a previous pregnancy." (she previously had experienced miscarriages). This type of claim exists where "(1) an employer mistakenly believes that an employee has a physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, or (2) an employer mistakenly believes that an actual, non-limiting impairment substantially limits one or more of an employee's major life activities."

Ms. Spees will get a chance to present her "perceived disability" case to a jury because the employer regarded her as having a disability (high-risk pregnancy), the employer believed that the perceived impairment limited a major life activity (her ability to work as a welder), she was qualified to weld (with or without an accommodation), and the employer took adverse action (when it transferred her to the tool room). 

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