Court Rules That Firing a Woman for Lactating at Work is Against the Law

By Eric B. Meyer

Last week, the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled that discharging a female employee because she is lactating or expressing breast milk is sex discrimination and, therefore, violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In EEOC v. Houston Funding II, Ltd., Dominica Venters, who was recovering from a C-Section, alleged that she requested that her supervisor ask the boss if it would be possible for her to use a breast pump at work. The supervisor stated that when he posed this question to the boss, the boss “responded with a strong ‘NO. Maybe she needs to stay home longer.’ ”

Ms. Venters alleged that she was later told that her spot had been filled. Houston Funding alleged that Ms. Venters had abandoned her job. So, Ms. Venters alleged sex discrimination, and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission took up the case on her behalf.

Employers and their FLSA obligations

In defending themselves, Houston Funding argued Title VII does not cover “breast pump discrimination” and moved for summary judgment. The district court granted the motion, finding that, even if Venters’ allegations were true, “[f]iring someone because of lactation or breast-pumping is not sex discrimination,” because neither is a related medical condition of pregnancy. The EEOC timely appealed.

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit began its analysis by noting that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), which is part of Title VII, provides that “[t]he terms ‘because of sex’ or ‘on the basis of sex’ include, but are not limited to, because of or on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions[.]” Therefore, Title VII must “cover a far wider range of employment decisions entailing female physiology,” of which lactation is one of them. Consequently, the court easily concluded that the lower court was wrong and Ms. Venters stated a possible claim for Title VII sex discrimination.

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Here’s the takeaway: Not only must employers consider their obligations under the Fair Labor Standards Act to provide nursing moms time and space to express breast milk at work, but taking action against a mom who requests to pump at work may get you discrimination lawsuit. (Although, the PDA does not require employers to affirmatively provide accommodations).

So, educate supervisors and management about these areas to avoid possible legal issues and, more importantly, treat new moms with the respect and dignity they deserve.

This was originally published on Eric B. Meyer’s blog, The Employer Handbook.

You know that scientist in the action movie who has all the right answers if only the government would just pay attention? Eric B. Meyer, Esq. gets companies HR-compliant before the action sequence. Serving clients nationwide, Eric is a Partner at FisherBroyles, LLP, which is the largest full-service, cloud-based law firm in the world, with approximately 210 attorneys in 21 offices nationwide. Eric is also a volunteer EEOC mediator, a paid private mediator, and publisher of The Employer Handbook (www.TheEmployerHandbook.com), which is pretty much the best employment law blog ever. That, and he's been quoted in the British tabloids. #Bucketlist.

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