Human Resources News & Insights

Woman fired for asking to breastfeed? Court does aboutface

Think the world of sex bias cases doesn’t get stranger all the time? Check out this case.

Here are the details of the case:

Donnicia Venters took a leave of absence to have a baby.

While she was out, she spoke with employees at the firm and continued to pay her insurance premium, but never spoke with the firm’s VP about her plans post-pregnancy.

About seven weeks after she gave birth, Venters finally spoke with the VP and asked where she could pump breast milk when she returned.

The VP said the company had assumed she’d abandoned her position and she had been fired. Venters then filed suit in district court, claiming pregnancy bias.

The court ruled in favor of the employer, saying that even if the firm’s claim that she was fired for abandonment is meant to hide the real reason – she wanted to pump breast milk – lactation is “not pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical issue.”

For that reason, the district court said, firing someone due to lactation was not sex bias.

Not so fast

On appeal, though, the Fifth Circuit reversed the decision and ruled in favor of Venters. The court noted that lactation is a physiological condition distinct to women who have undergone a pregnancy.

For that reason, firing a woman because she is lactating or expressing breast milk is unlawful sex bias — men can’t be fired for the same reason.

The authors at the Workplace Prof Blog had some additional analysis on the case:

This case was not about whether the employer had to accommodate the employee’s request to use her breast pump at work, or at least not yet. Instead, it was about whether she was fired just for saying that she had said was lactating and wanted to express milk at work. She hadn’t asked for any special accommodation yet. The employer doesn’t exactly deny that; instead, it contends that she was not fired at all and instead abandoned her job.

The case is EEOC v. Houston Funding.

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