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Court rules lactating mother may pursue sex discrimination suit

A federal appellate court has ruled that a new mother who wished to express milk after returning from maternity leave may pursue her employment discrimination lawsuit. The trial court had dismissed the lawsuit finding that lactation after giving birth is not sufficiently related to pregnancy, childbirth or a related medical condition.”

An appellate panel of judges from United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit unanimously reversed that ruling, finding that firing a woman who is lactating or expressing milk after giving birth to a child is sex discrimination under federal law.

The appellate court (which does not directly govern over federal courts in New York) ruled that the trial court erred in suggesting that pregnancy-related medical conditions end on the day when a mother gives birth for the purposes of federal workplace discrimination laws, including the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

The case has been remanded back to the trial court level for trial on the merits. Often, cases may settle after the legal arguments are hashed out before the courts.

Employment discrimination laws protect workers from suffering adverse changes to employment based upon a variety of classifications. Sex discrimination and pregnancy discrimination laws protect mothers-to-be from being demoted or fired based upon pregnancy—among any number of other discriminatory practices all along the employment spectrum beginning at the hiring stage. While the case did not arise in New York, the recent ruling is potentially instructive for New York workers.

The case arose after the woman sought to return to work after maternity leave. She says that she inquired if she would be able to pump milk after her return to the job. That is when the employer reportedly terminated her position.

The appellate judges acknowledged that lactation is a physiological function that only women experience after giving birth to a child. Because a male does not experience lactation, and therefore could not be fired on that basis, the issue is one of sex discrimination, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Source: EEOC, “Fifth Circuit Holds Lactation Discrimination is Unlawful Sex Discrimination,” May 31, 2013

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