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Ohio Supreme Court: Company Didn’t Discriminate Against Mom Who Pumped At Work

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Earlier this year I wrote about the case of an Ohio mom, LaNisa Allen, who said that her employer Totes/Isotoner discriminated against her when she was fired for needing to pump at work. She had a 5 month old baby.
This week the Ohio Supreme Court took the company’s side. From the AP:

The high court ruled Thursday that LaNisa Allen failed to prove outerwear manufacturer Totes/Isotoner Corp. violated Ohio’s Pregnancy Discrimination Act.
The court upheld a lower court’s ruling that said Allen was fired for taking an extra break that wasn’t authorized. Allen acknowledged in a deposition she had taken breaks without her employer’s knowledge.

My first reaction to this case was, how truly disappointing. Breastfeeding is part of pregnancy. It’s what happens naturally after giving birth. We don’t, after all, spontaneously lactate without having a baby. So how could the justices conclude that needing to pump, in other words to breastfeed, is not part of pregnancy?
When I read the court’s decision, however, I can see what happened. Basically, the court decided that Allen didn’t prove in the lower court that she was fired because she was pumping. Instead, her employer argued that Allen didn’t follow orders about her break times when she was pumping, and Allen admitted this was the case. So, in the end, the Ohio Supreme Court actually avoided the larger question of whether lactation is protected by state pregnancy discrimination laws. (Note that Ohio does have a law protecting the right to breastfeed in public). Here’s an excerpt from the court’s decision, which you can find within this Wall Street Journal article:

{¶ 6} In this case, the evidence in the record demonstrates that Allen
took unauthorized breaks from her workstation, and Isotoner discharged her for
doing so. Thus, the record as it was developed in the trial court fails to provide a
basis from which a jury could conclude that Isotoner’s articulated legitimate,
nondiscriminatory reason for Allen’s termination—failure to follow directions—
was a pretext for discrimination based on Allen’s pregnancy or a condition related
to her pregnancy. This determination defeats Allen’s sex-discrimination claim
under R.C. 4112.02 as a matter of law, and, accordingly, the trial court properly
granted summary judgment to Isotoner. Consequently, this court does not reach
the issue of whether alleged discrimination due to lactation is included within the
scope of Ohio’s employment-discrimination statute, R.C. 4112.02, as sex
discrimination under R.C. 4112.01(B).

And yet, the one judge who dissented in this case, really gets at the core of what’s going on. He wrote that he court missed an opportunity to clarify the state law and indicate that lactation is in fact protected. Here’s a quote from the dissent:

{¶ 54} We accept cases not necessarily because of how the result might
affect the parties in the individual case, but because of how a holding might affect
other persons similarly situated. Ohio’s working mothers who endure the
uncomfortable sacrifice of privacy that almost necessarily accompanies their
attempt to remain on the job and nourish their children deserve to know whether
Ohio’s pregnancy-discrimination laws protect them.
{¶ 55} I would hold in this case that employment discrimination due to
lactation is unlawful pursuant to R.C. 4112.01(B), that clear public policy justifies
an exception to the employment-at-will doctrine for women fired for reasons
relating to lactation, and that LaNisa Allen deserves the opportunity—due to the
state of the record—to prove her claim before a jury.

So bottom line… here’s what I have to say. I need new gloves. I have a random collection of mismatched right hand gloves. Isotoner, I’m shopping elsewhere.