Court of Appeals Ruling Overturns District Court's Finding, Permits EEOC's Sex Discrimination Lawsuit Against Houston Funding II LLC to Go Forward
HOUSTON--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 yesterday 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.
"Pregnancy discrimination is something that the EEOC takes seriously and sees far too often," said David Lopez, General Counsel of the EEOC. "We are gratified that the Fifth Circuit gave plain meaning to the words of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and ruled in our favor that discrimination on the basis of lactation is discrimination on the basis of sex."
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.
"Now that the Fifth Circuit has reaffirmed the EEOC's long-standing position about the broad coverage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, we look forward to trying the underlying case," said Claudia Molina-Antanaitis, trial attorney in the EEOC's Houston District Office which brought the initial litigation. "We hope this litigation sends a message to other women that discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth and related conditions is against the law and that the EEOC is here to help."
One of the six national priorities identified by the Commission's Strategic Enforcement Plan is for the Commission to address emerging and developing issues in equal employment law, including issues involving pregnancy-related limitations, among other possible issues.
The EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. Further information about the EEOC may be found at www.eeoc.gov.