A Kern County Superior Court judge ruled in favor Tuesday of a Tehachapi prison guard who is suing the state prison system for not providing adequate accommodations while she was pregnant, which led to the loss of her unborn child.
Judge Thomas Clark approved a preliminary injunction filed by Attorney Arnold Peter prohibiting the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation from applying one of its policy against correctional officer Sarah Coogle that prohibited her from getting light duty while pregnant.
Coogle says she was denied light duty while pregnant last year and only given options to continue working in full capacity, taking a demotion or taking unpaid leave.
The CDCR policy that is the target of the lawsuit was put in place in 2015 and limited light-duty positions to no longer than 60 days within a six-month period. As pregnancy doesn’t meet the two-month requirement, pregnant officers are not eligible for light duty.
Coogle decided to continue working after being denied light duty and lost her child after she fell responding to an inmate fight last year.
“No woman should ever be forced to make a decision between her career and her child,” Peter said.
“We’re not asking for favorable treatment for pregnant correctional officers — we’re asking that everybody be treated equally on a case-by-case, individualized basis.”
The temporary injunction — which was filed as part of an ongoing lawsuit against the CDCR — sought to prohibit the 60-day light duty policy from applying to all pregnant officers, not just Coogle. However, Judge Clark said he felt the injunction was too broad in scope and limited it to Coogle, meaning the policy was illegal as it pertains to her specifically.
“I’m grateful for Judge Clark and his wisdom to see the hardships that CDCR has placed on me specifically,” she said. “A change needs to be made, and the only way change is going to be made is in the courtroom. The only way CDCR is going to change their policy is by fighting them.”
Peter said that while the injunction was specific to Coogle, any pregnant officer can use the decision as precedence to negotiate for light duty or to use in the courtroom if necessary.
“For Sarah, it means that the most restrictive aspects of the policy cannot be applied towards her,” he said. “However, the same principles can be applied to every other female corrections officer. Anyone else can claim the benefits that Sarah was able to achieve on their behalf.”
In February 2017, when she was a few months pregnant, Coogle said she asked a supervisor at the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi where she works for light duty because she was concerned that her unborn child could be injured if the need came for her to respond to an inmate situation.
Light duty is considered a low-risk position that has minimal exposure to inmates. It is intended for officers who have a medical condition, according to the CDCR.
Prior to 2015, Peter said the CDCR made light-duty positions available to pregnant officers.
Coogle said she decided to stay in her position because she couldn’t afford to go on leave or lose her benefits and peace officer status.
While on duty in summer 2017 she had to respond to an inmate fight. Coogle, who was seven months pregnant at the time, said she fell on dirt ground while running toward a building.
Coogle said she suffered abdominal pain and was initially taken to the nurse on duty at the prison. She was then taken to a hospital by ambulance, where it was determined that no harm had come to the baby.
However, in September, Coogle returned to a hospital after her abdominal pain continued to worsen. Her baby, a girl, was at full term by that point.
Coogle said it was determined that she had suffered a placental rupture due to the fall and that there had been no signs of a tear when she was initially examined at the hospital.
Coogle’s baby, which was just days from her due date, died due to the rupture and was stillborn.
Now, Coogle is trying to make sure other pregnant officers don’t have to go through a similar experience. In April, Peter filed a lawsuit with the county court on Coogle’s behalf.
“Even though (Judge Clark) issued the injunction specifically toward me, the effects should hopefully help the other females as well,” she said. “That’s my main goal. I want to make sure every other female (officer) is protected, so nobody else has to go through what I went through.”
Coogle is currently undergoing fertility treatment in the hopes that she will become pregnant again soon.
Besides the injunction, the lawsuit is also seeking unspecified damages, Peter said. It is still being determined how much compensation will be requested.
Peter said he doesn’t believe the judge will change his decision on the injunction and expects the injunction will become permanent. However, he did say it’s possible that the CDCR will appeal the decision and/or the lawsuit in total.
Christina Flores, the attorney representing the CDCR, did not return requests for comment on Tuesday.