Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ohio Supreme Court avoids the issue of whether sex discrimination includes lactation

Totes/Isotoner Corp. fired LaNisa Allen for taking unauthorized, extra breaks during her work day. Allen claimed that her termination constituted unlawful sex discrimination because she had taken the breaks for lactation. This morning, in a terse three-page opinion, the Ohio Supreme Court – by a six to one vote – affirmed the legality of Allen’s termination. It did so based on a lack of evidence of pretext in the trial court. It also completed avoided the key issue – whether alleged discrimination due to lactation is included within the scope of Ohio’s employment-discrimination statute as sex discrimination.
Despite the six to one opinion for the employer, three Justices reached the ultimate issue and concluded that Ohio’s proscriptions against employment discrimination on the basis of sex/pregnancy includes lactation.
Justice O’Conner published a lengthy concurrence – with which Chief Justice Moyer concurs – that lactation is covered by Ohio’s proscriptions against employment discrimination on the basis of sex/pregnancy. However, because Allen did not obtain her employer’s permission before taking her lactation breaks, her claim failed:
Although Allen’s unauthorized breaks may have been to pump milk, Allen could not properly engage in such actions without her employer’s knowledge and permission. The [laws] mandate that an employer treat pregnancy with neutrality, but not preferentially.
Justice Pfeifer, dissenting, offers some key questions that he thinks a jury should have been given the opportunity to answer:
  • Why Allen’s trips to the restroom outside scheduled break times were different from the restroom trips other employees made outside scheduled break times?
  • Did employees have to seek permission from a supervisor to take an unscheduled restroom break.
  • What makes Allen’s breaks different if other unscheduled bathroom breaks were allowed?
Despite totes/Isotoner’s victory, employers should not view this case as a license to deny breaks to lactating employees. To the contrary, if another opportunity arises, I have little doubt that a majority of the court will agree with Justice O’Conner, Chief Justice Moyer, and Justice Pfeifer that the definition of sex discrimination covers lactation.
Before you institute a policy prohibiting breast pumping or feeding at work, or terminate a lactating employee for taking breaks, consider how you’ve treated other employees’ breaks during the work day. If you can’t find a consistent pattern of discipline or termination of similar non-lactating employees, you should reconsider the decision.
A copy of the full opinion is available at Allen v. totes/Isotoner Corp. (8/27/09) [PDF].

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