A Houston federal judge has dismissed a case brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on behalf of a woman who alleges that her employer fired her after she gave birth because she wanted to use a private space in the office to pump breast milk. In granting summary judgment to the employer, U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes held that lactation is not a condition related to pregnancy or childbirth, and therefore is not covered by federal anti-discrimination statutes. This may come as a surprise to people who have experienced pregnancy and childbirth. Several other courts have issued rulings with similar conclusions, but no higher court has yet considered the question.
Donnicia Venters began working for a collection agency called Houston Funding in 2006. In December 2008, she took maternity leave prior to the birth of her child. Venters says that she remained in close contact with Houston Funding, telling her direct supervisor multiple times that she wanted to use break time to pump breast milk once she returned to work. She asked him to request permission to do so from their boss, Vice President Harry Cagle. Venters was on leave for about ten weeks. When she tried to return to work, she again asked Cagle if she could use a back room during work breaks to pump milk. At this time, she says, Cagle informed her that she had been laid off.
The EEOC filed suit on Venter’s behalf, alleging that Houston Funding violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in employment based on gender and other factors. This includes discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth, or a medical condition related to either. The EEOC alleged that the company fired Venter because of her request to pump breast milk at work, and that this constitutes unlawful discrimination based on a condition related to childbirth or pregnancy.
Houston Funding alleged that it fired Venters for abandoning her job. It claimed that she did not stay in contact with her direct supervisor during her leave and did not provide a date when she would return. She instead told the company that her return date would depend on her doctor’s advice. The company reportedly does not have a policy on maternity leave. The company told the court that Cagle met with other employees on February 10, 2009, more than two months after Venters went on leave, and decided to fire her, although they made no written record of the meeting. Cagle allegedly informed her of the firing on February 17 when she tried to return to work.
Judge Hughes granted summary judgment in favor of Houston Funding on February 2, 2012. He gave credence to Houston Funding’s claim that it fired Venter for abandonment, but also addressed the issue of lactation. He specifically identified conditions covered by anti-discrimination laws as including “cramping, dizziness, and nausea while pregnant.” He held that, since Venters “gave birth on December 11, 2009 [sic],” her “pregnancy-related conditions” ended after that date. Any issue of firing over lactation, in his analysis, is not related to pregnancy or childbirth and therefore is not illegal. The EEOC has reportedly not decided if it will appeal the order.
The New York pregnancy discrimination lawyers at Phillips & Associates help safeguard the rights enshrined in anti-discrimination laws for both employees and job seekers. To schedule a free and confidential consultation, contact the firm today.
More Blog Posts:
Pregnancy Discrimination in the Workplace Sometimes Falls into a Murky Legal Area, New York Employment Attorney Blog, January 26, 2012
Former University Employee Sues for Pregnancy Discrimination, New York Employment Attorney Blog, November 22, 2011
Nurse Claims Pregnancy Discrimination Over Job Duty Restrictions, New York Employment Attorney Blog, November 16, 2011
Photo credit: Avent isis breast pump by Beukbeuk (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons