On the heels of Mother’s Day, a Texas woman has won an important victory for all nursing mothers in the workplace.
Donnicia Vetters accepted an out of court settlement of $15,000 on the eve of a trial in her lawsuit alleging pregnancy discrimination by her former employer, Houston Funding II, LLC, a Houston, TX, debt collection agency. After giving birth in 2012, Vetters inquired whether she would be able to pump breast milk when she returned to her job. Her boss allegedly responded by telling her that her position had been “filled.”
If that wasn’t outrageous enough, U.S. District Judge Lynn N. Hughes of Houston summarily dismissed Vetters’ lawsuit against Houston Funding on the grounds that “lactation is not pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition.” He said that “firing someone because of lactation or breast-pumping is not sex discrimination.” Judge Hughes, who is male, suggested that “pregnancy-related conditions” end on the day that a mother gives birth.
Fortunately, Judge Hughes’ opinion was unanimously reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which held that firing a woman because she is 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.
Ms. Vetters was represented in the case by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
In EEOC v. Houston Funding II, LLC, the Fifth Circuit noted the biological fact that lactation is a physiological condition distinct to women who have undergone a pregnancy. Accordingly, the court said, firing a woman because she is 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.
Instead of showing some decency, acknowledging fault and apologizing to Ms. Vetters, an attorney for Houston Funding was quoted as blaming the EEOC for forcing it to pay up.
The monetary settlement won’t put Ms. Vetters’ baby through college, and won’t compensate for the loss of a job in a difficult economy, but it is a great victory for all working mothers to know that they can’t be fired simply because they choose to nurture their infants with breast milk.