A Columbia health-care firm is appealing a Howard County Human Rights Commission order that it pay $26,500 to a woman the company fired after she followed her doctor's instructions to extend her maternity leave.
In a decision signed last month, the commission ordered HealthCare Strategies Inc., a managed-care provider, to provide back pay to medical transcriptionist Judith Carter of Randallstown. The panel also told the company to change its maternity leave policy.
Janice K. Albert, president and chief executive officer of the company, said the company is appealing the decision, mainly to defend the company's reputation in the health-care field.
"This is a matter of principle for us," she said. "We're absolutely appalled by the [panel's] decision."
The decision is the commission's first on a case involving maternity leave, but such cases are common in the state, said Lee D. Hoshall, assistant general counsel to the state Commission on Human Relations.
State and federal law require that employers, in their leave policies, treat pregnancy the same as any other temporary disability, he said.
HealthCare Strategies fired Ms. Carter three days before Christmas in 1992, saying she had failed to provide sufficient proof of a medical reason for not returning to work after six weeks of maternity leave.
A panel of three commission members concluded that the company treated the pregnant employee differently than it would have treated a sick employee.
"Application of its sick leave and pregnancy leave policies . . . has a disproportionate impact on women, in that it exposes women to a greater risk of dismissal than men," the commission stated.
Employees on sick leave for more than three days also are supposed to present a doctor's note but the company's requirement has never been enforced, the decision said.
On June 30, the company appealed the decision to Howard County Circuit Court and is preparing legal arguments for the case.
The company's attorney, George E. Rippel Jr. of Baltimore, said the commission erred in its findings, in part because comparing sick leave and maternity policies is "mixing apples and oranges."
Maternity leave is something that ought to be compared with disability leave, not sick leave, he said, adding that any employee -- male or female -- who is on disability must meet the same burden of proof that was required of Ms. Carter.
County officials said they did not wish to argue the case outside of court, and would not comment on HealthCare Strategies' assertions.
Mr. Hoshall, who handles discrimination cases on both a state and federal level, said he does not see a distinction between sick leave and temporary disability.
"It's the substance of the policy and practice, not what label they put on it" that should be considered when deciding whether an employer applies the same standards to new mothers as it does to employees who miss work for other medical reasons, he said.
Ms. Carter, who has an unlisted telephone number, could not be reached for comment.
The case arose after Ms. Carter went on maternity leave upon the birth of her son Nov. 5, 1992, and, according to company policy, was entitled to six weeks unpaid leave, expiring Dec. 17.
A Dec. 10, 1992, note from Ms. Carter's doctor, however, said she could return to work Dec. 30, after a routine post-pregnancy examination.
After warning Ms. Carter that not returning to work by Dec. 18 would be considered a resignation, the company dismissed her Dec. 23.
Although company policy allows an extension of maternity leave for medical reasons, the company said the note it received from Ms. Carter's doctor was "too vague." A supervisor at the company asked Ms. Carter for a more specific explanation but the company never received one, according to the decision.
In her March 1993 complaint to the commission, Ms. Carter also alleged that the company discriminated against her because she is black. The Office of Human Rights rejected that claim, however.