On October 26, 2018, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey found that a school district did not discriminate or retaliate against a nontenured teacher who requested and was granted parental leave when the district did not extend a new contract for the upcoming school year, effectively denying her tenure.

In Ramirez v. Board of Education of Township of Orange, a nontenured teacher alleged, among other claims, pregnancy discrimination and retaliation for requesting an accommodation, in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“NJLAD”). Ramirez was offered and accepted a one-year contract for her third year of teaching in the school district. She subsequently informed the district that she was pregnant and her pregnancy was high-risk. Accordingly, she submitted a leave request for leave to begin a few weeks later. Several months later, she requested and was granted an extended leave of absence. After returning to work, the board informed Ramirez that her contract would not be extended for the following school year.

By way of background, the NJLAD was amended in 2014 to explicitly include pregnancy as a protected classification, and to require employers to provide qualified pregnant employees with reasonable accommodations in regard to “needs related to pregnancy.” Additionally, according to the amendment, accommodations or leave (paid or unpaid) “provided to an employee affected by pregnancy or breastfeeding shall not be provided in a manner less favorable than accommodations or leave provided to other employees not affected by pregnancy or breastfeeding but similar in their ability or inability to work.”

Generally, to make an initial case for discrimination under the NJLAD, including pregnancy discrimination claims, an employee must show that he/she:

  • “belongs to a protected class;”
  • “applied for or held a position for which he or she was objectively qualified;”
  • “was not hired or was terminated from that position;” and
  • “the employer sought to, or did fill the position with a similarly-qualified person.”

These elements are cited in Gerety v. Atl. City Hilton Casino Resort, 184 N.J. 391, 399 (2005). An employee generally must be able to show all four of the above-listed elements in order to make an initial case for discrimination.

If an employee is able to show the four elements listed above, the school district may rebut the plaintiff’s preliminary demonstration by showing a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment outcome (such as, for example, termination). If the board satisfies this burden, the employee may still prevail by showing that the reason offered by the employer was merely a pretext.

As noted above, Ramirez raised claims of pregnancy discrimination under the NJLAD, retaliation for requesting an accommodation, and retaliation for requesting leave to care for her child with special needs. Upon consideration of her claims, the trial court found in favor of the school district.

The Appellate Division upheld the trial court’s finding in an unpublished decision, focusing on whether the district offered a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for not extending the teacher’s contract and whether the employee could show evidence to rebut the district’s offered reason.

The Appellate Division held that the school district acted within its discretion to not offer the teacher an extended contract and a tenured position after noting the district had previously determined that the teacher “performed substandard teaching work.”

In reaching this conclusion, the court considered multiple examples where the district informed the teacher that her performance was inadequate and/or needed improvement, and that the district had placed the teacher on a professional improvement plan (“PIP”) and withheld the teacher’s salary increment based on performance-related concerns in a prior school year.

Significantly, the court found that “[m]any of the plaintiff’s problems occurred prior to her pregnancy, and before she ever requested a maternity leave or extension.” Therefore, the Appellate Division concluded the employee failed to show that the district’s reason for not extending her contract a pretext.

Though the Ramirez decision may not create new precedent because it is not a published decision, it is in line with a prior decision before the 2014 amendment regarding pregnancy discrimination noted above. The focus in that earlier decision turned on the issues of (1) when an employer became aware of an untenured teacher’s pregnancy, and (2) whether grounds for removal existed prior to the employer becoming aware of the teacher’s pregnancy.

Specifically, in the 1995 decision, Daly v. Bd. of Educ. of Twp. of Winslow, decided by the Office of Administrative Law and adopted by the Commissioner of Education, a school district was found under the NJLAD to not have discriminated against a pregnant untenured teacher whose contract was not renewed. In Daly, there were already criticisms made of the teacher’s performance prior to the district being notified that the teacher was pregnant that formed the basis for the adverse action.

Earlier Decisions Concerning Pregnancy Discrimination Conversely, in an early pregnancy discrimination determination, North Bergen Federation of Teachers v. Bd. of Educ. of the Twp. of North Bergen, decided in 1975 under N.J.S.A. § 18A:6-6 and preceding TEACHNJ, the Commissioner of Education found that a school district discriminated against a pregnant teacher based on her sex after the school district did not renew her contract for what would have been her fourth year of teaching, because the teacher had, among other reasons, never requested maternity leave, had favorable reviews, and the district “had no meaningful reasons” not to renew her contract. The statute considered, N.J.S.A. § 18A:6-6, prohibits sex discrimination related to employment matters in, among other entities, school districts. The teacher was reinstated with tenure status per that decision.

However, in the 1978 case, Gilchrist v. Bd. of Educ. of Borough of Haddonfield, the Appellate Division held that a school district could nonrenew a pregnant nontenured teacher’s contract on the grounds that the employee’s leave request would result in an “unwarranted interruption in the continuity of the children’s classroom instruction,” where it is “the Board’s policy, not to renew the contract of any nontenured teacher, male or female, who gives the Board advance knowledge of an anticipated absence of substantial duration in the coming school year for any reason.” In other words, in that case, where the board did not single out pregnancy but treated all requests for leave for a substantial duration from any nontenured employee similarly, discrimination was not found.

It should be noted that in light of the 2014 NJLAD amendment, the case law in regard to pregnancy discrimination is still developing, and boards would be wise to consult their local board attorney prior to taking any action in regard to any specific employment matter.

For more information about this case or general questions about employee leave issues, please contact the NJSBA Legal and Labor Relations Department at (609) 278-5254 or your local board attorney.

Katrina Homel is counsel in NJSBA’s Legal and Labor Relations Department. She can be reached at (609) 278-5293.