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The federal agency that oversees workplace discrimination laws is suing Carondelet Health Network claiming the hospital chain’s sick leave policy is prejudiced against pregnant and disabled employees.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed suit May 10 alleging the Catholic hospital system acted “with malice or reckless indifference” to federal law by routinely firing workers who used up their allotted 90 days of personal leave for medical reasons.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers with more than 15 employees must consider “reasonable accommodations” — such as reassignment or light duty — for workers with disabilities to allow them to keep working. Other federal laws make it illegal to discriminate against pregnant women.

Carondelet, which operates St. Joseph’s and St. Mary’s hospitals in Tucson, Holy Cross Hospital in Nogales and other smaller medical facilities, “regularly terminated employees who took medical leave because they could not immediately return to work due to a disability or medical condition,” said the lawsuit filed at the federal courthouse in Tucson.

The EEOC complaint does not mention specific dates but says Carondelet’s faulty sick leave policy has been in effect “since at least July 2012.”

Keith Jones, a spokesman for Tenet Healthcare, Carondelet’s majority owner, declined to comment on the federal lawsuit saying the firm does not comment on pending litigation.

The complaint that led to court action was filed by former Carondelet employee Donna Wittenmyer, who lost her job after taking time off due to pregnancy complications, according to the EEOC.

The complaint also mentions, but does not identify by name, a second former employee who also lost her job due to a problem pregnancy.

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The court filing leaves open the possibility that other pregnant or disabled employees were similarly affected.

It seeks a permanent injunction against Carondelet’s discriminatory practices and calls for back-pay and damages for pain and suffering and lost financial opportunities for Wittenmyer and “other aggrieved individuals.”

The lawsuit also names the health-care firm Ascension, Carondelet’s former parent company, as a codefendant.

The EEOC has requested a jury trial for the action.

Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at 573-4138.

Reporter

Carol Ann has been with the Star since 1999, but has been an investigative reporter for more than 30 years. She's won numerous awards in the U.S. and Canada. In 2003, she was a war correspondent in Iraq and was a Knight-Wallace Fellow in Michigan in 2008.