The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently settled a sex discrimination lawsuit it filed against a Houston collections company alleging the agency fired a female employee because she was lactating and asked to express breast milk at work. EEOC v. Houston Funding II, Ltd. (S.D. Tex. 2014).
The employee, Venters, worked for Houston Funding as an account representative/collector for about two years. The discrimination allegedly occurred while she was on a leave of absence to have a baby. The lawsuit alleged that the company president promised to save a spot for the employee until her return. When the president learned Venters was contemplating bringing a breast pump to the office, he responded, “No. Maybe she needs to stay home longer.” Venters subsequently called the president and asked whether she would be permitted to use a breast pump in one of the back rooms when she returned to work, and the president allegedly replied, “[W]ell, we filled your spot.”
This case drew national attention on whether lactation is a pregnancy-related medical condition and whether taking adverse action because an employee is lactating or expressing breast milk violates Title VII. On appeal, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that subjecting a female employee to an adverse employment action because she is lactating or expressing breast milk “clearly imposes upon women a burden that male employees need not—indeed, could not—suffer” and therefore would violate Title VII. The Fifth Circuit rejected the argument that lactation is not a “related medical condition of pregnancy” for purposes of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act amendments to Title VII.
In addition to the monetary amount, the settlement prohibits Houston Funding from engaging in further sex discrimination or retaliating against workers who oppose future unlawful employment practices or who provided testimony or evidence related to the EEOC’s lawsuit. Lastly, the company will be required to conduct management training and fulfill reporting requirements over the next five years.