Judge says lactation issue not sex discrimination

Published: Friday, Feb. 10 2012 5:13 p.m. MST

A federal judge has ruled that firing a woman for requesting a place to pump breast milk at work is not a sex-discrimination issue.

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes concluded that lactation was not pregnancy related, so it could not be considered sex discrimination, according to a story in USA Today.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had earlier decided in favor of Donnicia Venters, who had claimed that Houston Funding dismissed her because while on medical leave she'd said she hoped to pump breast milk at work when she returned.

The EEOC sued Houston Funding on her behalf in June under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 within Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The suit had asked the company, a debt-collection agency, to stop discriminating and to pay Venters back pay and unspecified damages.

Hughes is not the first district judge to make that ruling, but because no higher court has tackled the issue, many new mothers are in legal limbo, Carrie Hoffman, a labor lawyer in Dallas, told the Associated Press. She noted that the Affordable Care Act created by the Obama administration says employers must give new moms a break so they can nurse, but "it doesn't specifically protect women from being fired if they ask to do so." And it would not apply to Venters, since her case preceded the health care reform law.

Venters took maternity leave in December 2008 to have her daughter, Shiloh, maintaining contact with Houston Funding during the 10 weeks she was off. In a couple of those conversations, she said she wanted to be able to pump breast milk on her breaks when she came back to work and she asked her supervisor to get permission from their boss. At worst, she told the Associated Press, she thought he'd say no. "I didn't think I would get the boot for it," she said. "It didn't really make sense to me."

The company on Thursday night issued a statement heralding the court's ruling and denying discrimination against Venters. It said it would comply with new laws that protect women's rights to breast feed in the workplace.

Houston Funding said she was fired for abandoning her job by not staying in touch while on maternity leave. While siding with the company, Hughes wrote, "Even if the company'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 condition."

Once she gave birth, he said, "she was no longer pregnant and her pregnancy-related conditions ended," so that it was not sex discrimination.

The EEOC hasn't said if it will appeal the ruling.

EMAIL: lois@desnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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