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A federal court has declined to dismiss allegations of pregnancy discrimination made by a former laborer against a Denver-based company that is the largest global manufacturer of mozzarella cheese.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael E. Hegarty decided that Concepcion Rios had stated a plausible case for discrimination against Leprino Foods Company after claiming that a plant manager told her that “the only option was to send her home” during her pregnancy “for her own good.”

That comment “is not some general opinion. It is specifically directed at Plaintiff and involves [the manager’s] personal concern over Plaintiff’s ability to work while pregnant,” wrote Hegarty in a Sept. 9 order allowing Rios’ discrimination claim to proceed.

Rios began working at Leprino’s Fort Morgan cheese plant in 2014. Her job required her to regularly lift 30-pound items, including when a pallet-stacking robot broke down.

In 2017, Rios learned she was pregnant. After taking two weeks of medical leave, she returned to work with a doctor’s note advising that she lift no more than 15 pounds for the rest of her pregnancy. The doctor declined Rios’ request to authorize her to lift the 30 pounds she was used to, but raised the limit to 20 pounds.

The manager of the processing department allegedly said the plant could not accommodate the lifting restriction, and made comments about sending her home “for her own good.” Rios, who believed she could still work with reasonable accommodations, went back on medical leave and received short-term disability benefits until mid-2018, after the birth of her son. Her doctor cleared her in May to return to work, but Rios opted to stay at home until July 2 to care for the newborn. She was able to return to her regular job, but was eventually fired.

Rios filed a lawsuit against Leprino under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act for failing to provide  accommodations during the pregnancy. Leprino denied discriminating, and stated that it had accommodated a worker’s five-pound lifting restriction who was not pregnant, and had also helped another pregnant employee perform her duties.

"Plaintiff cannot dispute that Leprino Foods provided her with an extensive leave of absence and payment of a large portion of her salary," lawyers for Leprino wrote to the court. "Plaintiff is unable to present any evidence to show Leprino Foods’ stated reason for its actions is a pretext for pregnancy discrimination. To the contrary, the evidence confirms Leprino Foods regularly accommodates employees, including pregnant employees, when possible."

Hegarty agreed there was no evidence Leprino categorically failed accommodate pregnant workers. Instead, it was the manager’s comments about sending Rios home for her own good while declining to accommodate her that established a legitimate legal claim linked to her pregnancy status.

“Thus, a reasonable jury could conclude that [the] statement expressed discriminatory intent based on Plaintiff’s pregnancy, and that the decision to not accommodate stemmed from that intent,” the magistrate judge wrote.

He also dismissed a second claim: that Leprino interfered with the medical leave Rios was entitled to under federal law by forcing her to take time off earlier than she wanted.

The jury trial is scheduled to begin on Feb. 14, 2022.

The case is Rios v. Leprino Foods Company.

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