Lactation Discrimination is Unlawful Sex Discrimination, Fifth Circuit Overturns District Court's Finding

 
Monday, June 3, 2013
 

Overturning a federal trial court's decision from the Southern District of Texas denying the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's discrimination lawsuit, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held unanimously that firing a woman because she is lactating or expressing milk is unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978).  Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act to protect working women against discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth or a related medical condition. 

The appeal arose from a lawsuit filed by the EEOC on behalf of Donnica Venters, who claimed that she was fired after giving birth once she inquired as to whether she would be able to pump breast milk when she returned to her job.  The EEOC sued, alleging that the employer, Houston Funding II, LLC, engaged in sex discrimination. The district court dismissed the lawsuit (EEOC v. Houston Funding II LLC, No. 4:11-CV-2442) on a motion for summary judgment.  Following that decision, the EEOC appealed to the Fifth Circuit (EEOC v. Houston Funding II LLC, No. 12-20220)

In its decision, the lower court ruled that "lactation is not pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition," and thus decided that "firing someone because of lactation or breast-pumping is not sex discrimination."  The district court suggested that "pregnancy-related conditions" ended on the day that a mother gives birth.

In examining and overturning the lower court's ruling, the Fifth Circuit addressed the question "whether discharging a female employee because she is lactating or expressing breast milk constitutes sex discrimination in violation of Title VII."  The appeals court found that "it does."

The Fifth Circuit noted the biological fact that lactation is a physiological condition distinct to women who have undergone a pregnancy.  Accordingly, under Title VII and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, firing a woman because she is lactating or expressing milk is unlawful sex discrimination, since men as a matter of biology could not be fired for such a reason. The case was remanded back to the lower court for a trial on the merits. 

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