A correctional officer at California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo alleges in a lawsuit that the state agency overseeing prisons discriminated against her by forcing her to take unpaid leave when she became pregnant.
Amanda Van Fleet of San Luis Obispo is a five-year veteran of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), according to her lawsuit. She is seeking unspecified damages for loss of income, emotional distress and attorneys fees, as well as a judicial order that the agency cease discriminating against its employees “based on disability, sex and gender,” the lawsuit reads.
Van Fleet also is seeking the adoption of written policies prohibiting discrimination and requiring training for employees on those policies.
CDCR spokeswoman Vicky Waters on Tuesday declined to comment on the litigation. In a response filed in court in December, however, the agency’s attorneys deny the allegations and say Van Fleet “could not perform the essential functions” of her job.
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On Nov. 2, the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) filed a lawsuit in San Luis Obispo Superior Court on Van Fleet’s behalf against the CDCR, alleging the officer was placed on leave when she told her supervisors she was pregnant and requested “minor work accommodations.”
According to the lawsuit, Van Fleet became pregnant in early 2016. As her pregnancy progressed, she provided supervisors with a letter from her physician, who recommended she be transferred to a post where she could sit and had access to a restroom, the lawsuit states. When a position opened up in the prison’s control room — an assignment Van Fleet previously had experience in, the lawsuit states — she applied for the transfer.
But CDCR denied her the job and instead suggested she temporarily resign as a peace officer and accept a civil service position, a demotion that would disrupt her medical coverage, according to the filing. Van Fleet was told she could remain a peace officer, the lawsuit states, if she withdrew her request for accommodation and assumed all liability for any injury she might incur on the job.
She declined to withdraw the request and instead went on unpaid leave. When her leave expired, Van Fleet stopped receiving her salary from CDCR altogether.
“Unless (CDCR is) enjoined from failing or refusing to comply with the mandates of the (California Fair Employment Housing Act), Officer Van Fleet’s and other persons’ right to seek or hold employment free of unlawful discrimination will continue to be violated,” the lawsuit reads.
In its response, CDCR denied all of Van Fleet’s allegations, writing that she “could not perform the essential functions” of her job without posing a safety risk to others, and was offered “reasonable accommodations” that wouldn’t have produced undue hardship on the agency.
The state also argues that Van Fleet didn’t exhaust her remedial options and that her “own misconduct” bars her from damages under the “doctrine of unclean hands,” but does not provide specifics.
On Feb. 1, Superior Court Judge Charles Crandall granted a motion by Van Fleet to intervene in the DFEH lawsuit, which allows her to hire counsel and directly participate in the proceedings.
In a prepared statement dated Feb. 6, Van Fleet’s attorney, Christopher LeClerc, wrote that many employers, including public agencies, continue to view pregnant employees as a liability.
“Unfortunately, the war on women continues, even here in California,” LeClerc said.
A case management conference is scheduled in San Luis Obispo Superior Court on March 9.