Fifth Circuit Holds that Lactation Discrimination is Unlawful

Working mothers across the country and right here in Tennessee have certain rights that provide them protection from discrimination in the workplace. However, employers unfortunately do not always comply with the protections afforded by the law. Last week, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit unanimously held that firing a nursing mother for lactating is unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Congress created the Pregnancy Discrimination Act to protect women in the workforce from discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. While this law has been around almost three decades, both expectant and new mothers are still struggling to combat discrimination in the workplace.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) originally filed suit on behalf of Donnica Venters who claimed that she had been fired following giving birth after asking whether she would be able to pump breast milk when she returned to her job. The lawsuit claimed that Ms. Venter’s employer, Houston Funding II, LLC, had engaged in sex discrimination by terminating her employment. The federal trial court had dismissed the suit on summary judgment ruling that “lactation is not pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition.” As a result, the court decided that “firing someone because of lactation or breast-pumping is not sex discrimination,” suggesting that “pregnancy related conditions” end upon giving birth to the child. The trial court determined the suit should be dismissed without a valid discrimination claim under the text of the law.

However, the Fifth Circuit did not agree with the ruling of the lower court. The court found that the firing was motivated by factors clearly burdening a woman that a male employee could not suffer from. In addition, the court held that “lactation is a related medical condition of pregnancy for the purposes of the [Pregnancy Discrimination Act].” Although the Pregnancy Discrimination Act did not define what a “medical condition” is under the statute, the court looked to the plain meaning to find that lactation would be protected as a “medical condition” under the law. The court found that the EEOC had presented a valid claim for discrimination on behalf of Ms. Venters under Title VII, and the case was sent back to the trial court level to be tried in front of a jury.

What does this all mean for new mothers in the workplace? This ruling provides greater protection to employees under Title VII, as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. While the Fair Labor Standards Act requires employers to provide new mothers with a reasonable break time and place, other than a bathroom, this ruling now clearly prevents employers from discriminating against working mothers who need to utilize a breast pump or express breast milk while at work. Working mothers have a right to know what protections are afforded to them under the law. This ruling by the Fifth Circuit is just another step in preventing discrimination in the workplace all across the country.

If you believe to be the victim of an illegal employment practice please contact one of our Nashville Tennessee Labor Lawyers today.

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