Calif. CO who lost baby suing state prison system

The CO filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction prohibiting the CDCR from denying light-duty positions to pregnant officers

By Joseph Luiz
The Bakersfield Californian

TEHACHAPI, Calif. — A Tehachapi corrections officer who says she lost her child in part due to a policy prohibiting pregnant officers from getting paid leave or light duty hopes she can help create a better future for her fellow female officers.

Sarah Coogle, a Los Angeles native, filed a discrimination lawsuit in Kern County Superior Court against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in April seeking unspecified damages as well as an injunction prohibiting the CDCR from denying light-duty positions to pregnant officers.

Judge Thomas Clark is set to consider the injunction during a hearing on Tuesday. The CDCR said it could not comment on pending litigation.

“I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through,” Coogle said. “I hope the judge sees what we’re trying to do here and I hope we’re successful.”

In February 2017, when she was a few months pregnant, Coogle said she asked a supervisor at the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi 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.

Coogle said she was told she was not eligible for light duty and that she could stay in her current position, take a demotion or take unpaid leave.

Coogle’s lawyer, Arnold Peter from the L.A.-based Peter Law Group, said the CDCR had a policy in place prior to 2015 in which light-duty positions were designated to pregnant officers.

In 2015, however, Peter said the designated positions were eliminated and instead a policy was put in place which limited light-duty positions to no longer than 60 days within a six-month period.

The provision is not applicable to pregnant officers, Coogle said, as pregnancy does not meet the two-month requirement.

“The expectation of light duty is you’ll be better after the period is up and can return to your regular position,” she said. “Pregnant officers don’t fit that expectation.”

Peter said he’s never seen such a rigid policy for pregnant employees as the one instituted by the CDCR.

“I’ve never had to deal with a policy that’s so regressive and so outmoded,” he said. “This takes a one-size-fits-all approach and really makes it impossible for any pregnant correctional officer to meet the (requirements). This is supposed to be an individualized, case-by-case process.”

Coogle said she decided to stay in her position — which requires her to meet all the essential functions of a correctional officer, including running and disarming inmates when needed — because she couldn’t afford to go on leave or lose her benefits and peace officer status.

Coogle continued working normally until that summer, when 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.

“The pain had gotten worse and worse. It never went away,” she said. “At that point, it had gotten really painful, so I decided to go to the hospital.”

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.

“It was a small tear that was never found or treated,” she said. “Over time, it just got worse and worse until it ended up fully tearing.”

Coogle’s baby, which was just days from her due date, died due to the rupture and was stillborn.

Coogle said she still finds it difficult to speak about the incident.

“I still have a little denial. I can’t believe that everything happened this way,” she said. “It was a year last month that I lost her, and it’s been incredibly hard. I see friends with their children, some of which were born a few days before my baby was supposed to be born.”

Coogle said she’s trying to turn her pain, grief and anger into positive action for her fellow female correctional officers.

“I have had officers reach out to me who are terrified that what happened to me will happen to them,” she said. “If I can have a hand in protecting these women, I will do that.”

While Peter said part of the lawsuit is about seeking damages for the pain and suffering that Coogle has experienced, the ultimate goal is to change CDCR policy to help prevent another tragedy.

“I hope the judge acknowledges that this is a policy that is illegal and needs to be changed,” he said. “There are thousands of officers who are being impacted or could be impacted by a clearly illegal policy. Every day that goes by, (it) is risking the health of female officers.”

According to court documents, Coogle is undergoing fertility treatment in the hopes that she will be able to get pregnant again soon.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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