Metro-East News

Pregnancy discrimination suit against Walmart can proceed in Illinois, local judge rules

BND file photo

A pregnancy discrimination case against Walmart survived a motion to dismiss and will go forward in federal court in East St. Louis.

U.S. District Judge Michael Reagan has denied two of Walmart’s motions to dismiss a suit brought by former employees who allege that the company placed narrower limitations on accommodations for pregnant women than workers with other physical limitations.

The plaintiffs are Otisha Woolbright, of Florida, and Talisa Borders, of Illinois. They are asking that the suit be certified as a class action that would include other Walmart employees who were pregnant or are pregnant.

Borders worked at the O’Fallon store, and alleges that when her doctor said she should avoid climbing ladders and lifting heavy objects, Walmart placed her on unpaid leave instead of reassigning her to less-physical work. When she returned after pregnancy, she was not reinstated to her job in the store pharmacy, but was reassigned to lower-paying positions, according to the complaint.

Specifically, instead of working in the pharmacy at $10.85 an hour, she was assigned to the toy department and other associate positions at $8.85 an hour.

Woolbright alleges her Jacksonville, Florida, store refused her permission for lighter duty until she sustained an on-the-job back injury. When she requested information on maternity leave, she states she was terminated three days later.

One of Walmart’s contentions was that the suit should not be brought in Illinois as it is incorporated in Delaware and has headquarters in Arkansas. But Reagan pointed out that Walmart has an “extraordinary presence“ in Illinois and can be considered at home in the state.

“Walmart does more business and hires more workers in Illinois than it does in almost every other state in the country, including … Arkansas and Delaware,” Reagan wrote. He said that made Walmart an “exceptional case” for being at home in Illinois.

Attorney Dina Bakst represents the employees, and called Reagan’s decision ”a huge victory,” according to a statement.

“Judge Reagan saw through Walmart’s transparent attempts to dodge responsibility, and we look forward to holding the company accountable for their unlawful actions of pushing pregnant workers out when they need income the most,” Bakst said. “Our clients look forward to telling their stories and ensuring that no pregnant worker is forced to go through what they have at Walmart.”

Walmart spokesman Randy Hargrove said the order comes at “the early stages“ of the case and should not be considered a reflection of its merits.

"Walmart has always been a great place for women to work," Hargrove said in a statement. He said Walmart policies "have always fully met or exceeded" state and federal law, and that the company has a strong anti-discrimination policy that includes pregnancy as a protected status. "We deny the claims of Ms. Borders and Ms. Woolbright and plan to continue to defend the company."

Walmart operates nearly 200 stores with more than 50,000 employees in Illinois, with another 167,000 supplier jobs and collects half a billion dollars in sales taxes each year. It is the largest private employer in Illinois, according to court filings.

Elizabeth Donald: 618-239-2507, @BNDedonald