On December 1, 2008, Donnicia Venters began a leave of absence from her job to have a baby. For three years, she’d been working as a collector at Houston Funding, a debt collection firm, in Houston, Texas. With only about 25 employees, Houston Funding wasn’t large enough to be governed by the Family and Medical Leave Act, and it had no official “maternity leave” policy. Still, Venters’s manager Robert Fleming assured her, “Your spot will be here when you get back,” though a return date wasn’t specified.
The baby was born on December 11, and complications from Venters’s C-section kept her home for several more weeks than expected. She told vice president Harry Cagle that she’d return as soon as her doctor released her. During this time, she called Fleming at least once a week. In one conversation, she mentioned she was nursing the baby and asked if she could use a breast pump at work when she returned. When Fleming asked Cagle about it, the partner’s response was strong: “No. Maybe she needs to stay at home longer.” Venters testified that she wasn’t aware of his remark.
She called Cagle on February 17, 2009, to tell him she was ready to come back. She also let him know that she was still nursing and wondered if she could use a back room at the office to pump milk. After what Venters described as “a long pause,” she alleges Cagle told her, “Your spot has been filled.” Three days later, Houston Funding mailed a termination letter to Venters dated February 16, stating that she’d been fired due to “job abandonment.”
On June 29, 2011, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a sex discrimination lawsuit on Venters’s behalf in district court for the Southern District of Texas. The EEOC argued that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA)—the 1978 amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, and gender—makes it clear that discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related conditions was discrimination related to one’s sex.
“I feel that when I told him about the breast pump that his attitude changed,” Venters testified in court. “[I]nstead of letting me know, he told me I was fired.”
On November 11, Houston Funding’s attorneys filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing “that the EEOC’s case failed as a matter of law because breast pump discrimination is not prohibited by Title VII.”
Was it sex discrimination when Houston Funding fired Donnicia Venters after she asked to pump breast milk at work? You be the judge.
The Verdict: The district court dismissed the lawsuit on February 2, 2012, ruling that the PDA didn’t apply. Since “lactation is not pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition,” the court stated, “firing someone because of lactation or breast pumping is not sex discrimination.”
EEOC spokesperson Justine Lisser noted that the ruling “flew in the face of not just the law but common sense.” That spring, the EEOC appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which unanimously agreed that Venters had been discriminated against and overturned the lower court’s ruling. In May 2014, Venters received a $15,000 settlement from Houston Funding. “The Fifth Circuit opinion didn’t set a major precedent,” says Lisser, “but recognized the obvious.”
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