Sunday, February 12, 2012

Court Finds That Breastfeeding is not Related to Pregnancy


            In EEOC v. Houston Funding II, LTD, a Texas court considered whether an employer discriminated against a woman who asked to pump breast milk during breaks at work.  Ruling in favor of the employer, the district court concluded that the employee’s claims did not rise to the level of discrimination.

            Donnicia Venters worked for Houston Funding for approximately two years.  She took a leave of absence to give birth and a few days after delivery told the company VP that she was uncertain as to when she would return.  After this conversation, while Venters maintained contact with her coworkers, she did not make further contact with the VP.  About a month and a half later, the VP held a meeting with several employees and they discussed Venters’ return date.  Concluding that Venters did not intend to return, Houston Funding decided to terminate her employment. 

            A few days later, Venters doctor released her to return to work.  When Venters reached the VP, she told him that she was ready to return and asked if she could use a back room during breaks to pump milk for her baby.  The VP told Venters that she had been fired because the company believed that she abandoned her job.

            The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit on Venters’ behalf claiming that the company discriminated against her in connection with her pregnancy.  The pregnancy discrimination allegations focused on Venters’ need to pump breast milk at work.

            The Texas judge entered summary judgment in favor of Houston Funding.  Summary judgment is a procedure that allows a judge to enter judgment in favor of one party without trial if the court concludes that the evidence to proceed to trial is lacking.  In reaching its conclusion, the court noted that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act did not cover Venters’ claims.  The court reasoned that lactation is not pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition.  That is right…the court concluded lactation is not“a related medical condition” [to pregnancy].  The court further noted that after Venters gave birth, her pregnancy related conditions ended.

            This case generated some publicity over the last week, with no less than 275 newspaper articles or commentaries. While I admit to not reading all of the articles, I think it would be difficult to find an opinion piece in which the writer agreed with the judge.  It is worth noting, that about 3-4 other courts reached the same result when the issue was presented. 

            Also, there has been a change in the law that protects some women who need to pump milk while at work.  In 2008, Congress amended the Fair Labor Standards Act to require employers to provide time for women to pump for up to 12 months following the birth of the child.  This new law, however, applies only to non-exempt employees and there are exceptions.

Additionally, I recommend the following articles/blogs for further thoughts on this subject:   Judge:Legally, breastfeeding not related to pregnancy by the Suzanne Lucas and LactationIs Not Caused By Pregnancy or Childbirth, Says Judge by Donna Ballman. 

Do you think the Texas Judge made the right decision?

6 comments:

  1. Nice one. Tweeted, +1'd and shared on FB & G+

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  2. Why did she not keep in touch with the VP with respect to coming back?

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  3. The judge made the right decision since the firing wasn't likely to be related to the breastfeeding (although god knows Texas judges tend to rule against women and breastfeeding anywhere but in a locked room is frowned on in a primarily Republican state).

    The woman would have had more luck with pursuing a violation of the Family leave act, especially since at the time of the firing she had not yet been released by her doctor. It does sound like her employer chose to dump her without real cause.

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  4. In the decision, the judge laid out the factual background followed by his analysis. For some reason, his analysis did not discuss the job abandonment issue. His analysis focused solely on the issue of pregnancy discrimination. I wondered whether the Texas attorneys and EEOC were seeking an advisory opinion from the judge on the pregnancy/breastfeeding issue.

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  5. Tengo, you raise a good question. Have no idea what the answer is. That problem could go both ways - i.e., did the company policy require her to regularly provide updates and if so, to whom.

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