Dr's RTW Certificate Outweighs Employer's 'Common Sense' Concerns


Asheville, NC (CompNewsNetwork) - The case involved Heather Spees who became pregnant shortly after being hired as a welder by James Marine Inc. (JMI). When she informed her foreman, he asked Spees to talk to a doctor and get a note that described what she could and could not do.

After reviewing the welding position and work conditions, Spees' doctor told her that there was “no problem” and produced a “Certificate to Return to Work,” releasing Spees to work without restrictions. In spite of the release, Spees' foreman felt “common sense” dictated that there were “some questions about her being pregnant and being able to safely perform the job that she was required to do.” Her foreman also based his opinion on Spees' complications during a prior failed pregnancy.

JMI requested that Spees obtain another doctor's note, this time containing a mention of “toxic fumes” and limiting her to “light duty.” Spees was told that this note would enable a transfer to the tool room, which would allow her to remain employed by the company. Spees obtained the requested note and was removed from her welding duties and transferred to the tool room.

Spees worked the daytime shift in the tool room for a week, but then was transferred to the night shift, which conflicted with Spees child-care schedule. A month later, Spees transferred her medical care to another obstetrician, who discovered that Spees had a pregnancy-related medical condition that required total bed-rest. When Spees provided documentation to the company of that fact,  the supervisor told her that she was being fired and she had not worked at JMI long enough to have earned FMLA or other additional medical leave.

The district court granted summary judgment for JMI on all of Spees' claims; however, The Sixth Circuit reversed the decision regarding the transfer, but upheld the dismissal of the termination claims. Citing International Union, UAW v. Johnson Controls Inc., 499 U.S. 187 (1991), the court noted that an employer's safety concerns were a permissible ground for restricting a female employee's job opportunities only where a pregnancy actually interfered with the employee's ability to perform the job. Congress made clear that the decision to become pregnant or to work while being pregnant was reserved for each woman to make for herself.

The court also found that a jury could find that JMI “regarded” Spees as having a disability and transferred her as a result of this perception.


The Court's opinion emphasizes the point that an employer cannot make a decision based on subjective information, even if that decision seems to be in the employee's best interest, and cannot supersede the diagnosis of a treating physician.

This material is provided as general information and is not a substitute for legal or other professional advice.

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Kevin Ring is the Lead Workers' Compensation Analyst for the Institute of WorkCompProfessionals, the Asheville, NC-based organization that trains insurance agents to help employers reduce Workers' Compensation expenses. A licensed

insurance agent, he leads workshops, analyzes Workers' Comp programs and is the co-developer of a Workers' Comp software suite that helps insurance professionals in working with employers. He can be contacted at 828-274-0959 or kevin@workcompprofessionals.com

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