News Law and Policy

Florida Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Pregnant Workers

Jessica Mason Pieklo

A 6-1 ruling gives pregnant workers in Florida more legal protections from on-the-job discrimination.

On Thursday, the Florida Supreme Court ruled 6-1 that a state law barring discrimination based on gender can cover claims of pregnancy discrimination. It’s an important ruling for pregnant workers in the state, but also highlights the need for updated protections for pregnant workers nationwide.

Peguy Delva, who filed the case, worked as a front desk manager for the Continental Group, a property management firm. She claimed that once her employer found out she was pregnant, the firm would not allow her to cover other workers’ shifts nor would the company schedule her for work after her maternity leave was up. Delva sued under the state’s 1992 Florida Civil Rights Act, claiming the firm’s conduct amounted to pregnancy discrimination in violation of the act. The law bars employers from discriminating based on “race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, handicap, or marital status.” But Delva lost her claims at both the trial court and court of appeals after both courts concluded that while it was clear Delva had suffered from discrimination, the Florida Civil Rights Act did not cover claims of pregnancy discrimination because “pregnancy” was not a protected status listed under the law.

Last week’s decision reverses that conclusion. “Indeed, the capacity to become pregnant is one of the most significant and obvious distinctions between the female and male sexes,” the court wrote. For this reason, the court held, discrimination based on pregnancy is in fact discrimination based on sex and therefore covered under the statute.

Whether or not state civil rights law covers pregnancy discrimination claims is an important question. In 1978, Congress amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to add the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), which explicitly prohibits sex discrimination on the basis of pregnancy. While the PDA offers an important first step in protecting pregnant workers’ rights, the statute doesn’t cover all employers, leaving many workers vulnerable to on-the-job discrimination. Furthermore, many states, like Florida, have civil rights laws that don’t expressly identify pregnancy as a protection, leaving employers an opportunity to argue their discriminatory conduct based on a worker’s pregnancy is not unlawful.

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The impact from the gaps in protections under the law is significant to pregnant workers and their families. A report released last summer by the National Women’s Law Center and A Better Balance found that pregnant workers face systematic discrimination on the job, including refusals for basic accommodations of the pregnancy or forcing pregnant workers to take unpaid leave.

The Florida Supreme Court’s decision arrived at a time when the state legislature was working to fill the gap between state civil rights protection and federal law. The Florida Senate unanimously approved SB 220, which would add pregnancy to the list of protected classes under the state law. Meanwhile, HB 105, a companion measure, is ready for a vote. Should the measures be enacted, they would codify into statute the Florida Supreme Court’s decision.

Roundups Law and Policy

Gavel Drop: The Fight Over Voter ID Laws Heats Up in the Courts

Jessica Mason Pieklo & Imani Gandy

Texas and North Carolina both have cases that could bring the constitutionality of Voter ID laws back before the U.S. Supreme Court as soon as this term.

Welcome to Gavel Drop, our roundup of legal news, headlines, and head-shaking moments in the courts

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton intends to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to reinstate the state’s voter ID law.

Meanwhile, according to Politifact, North Carolina attorney general and gubernatorial challenger Roy Cooper is actually saving taxpayers money by refusing to appeal the Fourth Circuit’s ruling on the state’s voter ID law, so Gov. Pat McCrory (R) should stop complaining about it.

And in other North Carolina news, Ian Millhiser writes that the state has hired high-powered conservative attorney Paul Clement to defend its indefensible voter ID law.

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Alex Thompson writes in Vice that the Zika virus is about to hit states with the most restrictive abortion laws in the United States, including Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. So if you’re pregnant, stay away. No one has yet offered advice for those pregnant people who can’t leave Zika-prone areas.

Robin Marty writes on Care2 about Americans United for Life’s (AUL) latest Mad Lib-style model bill, the “National Abortion Data Reporting Law.” Attacking abortion rights: It’s what AUL does.

The Washington Post profiled Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Given this Congress, that will likely spur another round of hearings. (It did get a response from Richards herself.)

Kimberly Strawbridge Robinson writes in Bloomberg BNA that Stanford Law Professor Pamela Karlan thinks the Supreme Court’s clarification of the undue burden standard in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt will have ramifications for voting rights cases.

This must-read New York Times piece reminds us that we still have a long way to go in accommodating breastfeeding parents on the job.

Analysis Law and Policy

The Supreme Court Could Give Religiously Affiliated Employers Even More Room to Discriminate

Jessica Mason Pieklo

A series of cases working their way through the courts could expand which businesses get a pass for offering employees discriminatory health and retirement benefits.

You may remember the Little Sisters of the Poor—that group of earnest nuns who challenged the process for accommodating religious objections to the birth control benefit in the Affordable Care Act. The Little Sisters, along with dozens of other religiously affiliated nonprofits, have continuously argued that the act of completing a form to be legally excused from complying with the law substantially burdens their religious rights.

Well, the Little Sisters remain tied up in litigation with the Obama administration over birth control, nondiscriminatory insurance coverage, and their religious objections to providing for both. But there’s more at stake here. To be clear, the Sisters are intent on doing everything they can to block comprehensive insurance coverage for their employees, and block third parties from providing it to them as well. But buried in litigation footnotes is a provision of employee benefits law that, if the Sisters and other religiously affiliated organizations get their way, will solidify another pass for discriminatory corporate practices beyond contraception coverage alone.

The Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA, is the federal law governing employee benefit plans, including retirement accounts and health insurance. Both the Department of Labor (DOL) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) are charged with ensuring ERISA compliance, which, as you can imagine, makes ERISA a prime target for conservatives who already hate “big government.”

Employer plans governed by ERISA have a few requirements that particularly draw conservative ire. One mandates that employer-sponsored retirement plans meet certain minimum funding levels by the employer. This is to help those plans be meaningful ways for employees to save for retirement, without putting the entire burden on those workers. Another provision forbids those plans from discriminating in benefits, such as matching a higher percentage of a male employee’s retirement contributions than a female one’s, or providing comprehensive health insurance coverage for men but not women. The ACA’s birth control benefit draws upon this theory.

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However, not all employers are required to follow ERISA. In particular, the statute exempts “church plans” from its requirements. ERISA defines church plans as those “established and maintained … for its employees … by a church or by a convention or association of churches which is exempt from tax under section 501 of the Internal Revenue Code.” Church plans also include those plans maintained by an organization “controlled by or associated with a church or by a convention or association of churches.” The rationale behind the church plan exemption is similar to the rationale behind most religious or ministerial exemptions to other nondiscrimination laws: Religious orders and institutions like churches and synagogues will generally employ people who follow the same religious tenets as they do because those organizations are engaged in spiritual outreach as part of their “business.”

That prohibition on ERISA governing “church plans” is also incorporated into the ACA.

Historically, organizations like the Little Sisters have had a regulatory pass when it came to maintaining retirement plans and insurance coverage that are either underfunded, discriminatory, or both. That’s because both the DOL and the IRS have been generous in their determination of how they interpret “controlled by or associated with a church or by a convention or association of churches.” And if those agencies determine that an organization has a “church plan,” that, in turn, means it won’t be subjected to a tax penalty for not complying with the ACA’s birth control benefit.

Given the explosion of religiously affiliated employers like hospitals and nursing homes, however, the scope of what does and does not qualify as a church plan has become an increasingly important issue. As religiously affiliated employers began to grow well beyond employing people of similar tenets, away from their ministerial core and into marketplace competition with secular, for-profit businesses, it has made less and less sense to allow those employers a pass to discriminate under ERISA.

At least that’s the argument advanced in a flurry of lawsuits challenging the scope of the church plan exemption under ERISA. Those lawsuits include one against Dignity Health Care, the Catholic-affiliated hospital system facing separate lawsuits related to failing to offer comprehensive reproductive health care at its hospitals. According to the allegations in the complaint, Dignity repeatedly underfunded its retirement plan in violation of ERISA. Dignity responded by arguing its plans were church plans and not subject to ERISA oversight.

Neither the district court nor the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals bought Dignity’s argument, holding there was no way that when Congress created the church plan exception, it intended the exemption to stretch as far as to shield the country’s fifth-largest health-care employer from regulatory oversight.

That question presented in the Dignity case—of just how broadly that exemption extends—could end up before the U.S. Supreme Court next term. The Roberts Court is considering a pair of cases with this exact issue at their center. Both involve religiously affiliated hospitals, and both have appellate court decisions ruling that organizations like Dignity, which are not actually churches nor actually maintained by religious orders, may not qualify for the church plan exemption.

Which brings us back to the Little Sisters, on whose cases these organizations will undoubtedly base some of their own arguments. The Little Sisters do have a church plan. And it should mean that they will never have to comply with the birth control benefit anyway—which would give them no standing to challenge the ACA’s accommodation. But this is not the argument the Little Sisters and their attorneys want the courts or the public to hear. Instead, the litigation has focused on whether or not completing the form for the birth control accommodation would be a substantial burden for the nuns, despite the fact that at this point under ERISA, there is no question that the federal government could penalize the Little Sisters for refusing to comply with the contraception benefit.

However, the Little Sisters are more than just a group of nuns. They own and operate facilities that employ and serve others. The DOL and IRS have, to date, agreed that the Little Sisters benefits plan is in fact a church plan. But that is in part because without switching plan administrators, the question of whether or not their employee benefits package still qualifies for the exemption has not arisen again. If and when the Little Sisters do switch plans or administrators, the status of their benefits exemption will come up.

At some point during oral arguments in March in Zubik v. Burwell, the conglomerate of cases challenging the accommodation process to the birth control benefit, the fact that the Little Sisters had a church plan and would never be subject to having to comply with the benefit did come up. Paul Clement, who represented the nuns, skillfully dodged the question of whether there was a church plan issue for the Little Sisters. Instead of acknowledging that fact—one even established in the record as an assumption the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals was making earlier in the litigation to move the case along—Clement assured the justices the church plan wasn’t really something the Court needed to concern itself with at the moment.

Maybe that’s because Clement and the nuns were hoping that if nobody noticed the pass given Little Sisters in their challenge to the birth control benefit, nobody would notice when hospitals and nursing homes also argue for the right to provide discriminatory retirement benefits and cite Zubik for their authority to do so. Maybe they didn’t know about the fight brewing in the appellate courts over which enormous corporate entities are shielded from regulatory nondiscrimination laws like provisions in ERISA and the ACA.

That seems unlikely, though, doesn’t it?

While it may be dry as toast, the church plan exemption under ERISA is critically important. As we’ve seen throughout the nonprofit challenges to the birth control benefit, when employers are allowed to opt out, the effect disproportionately falls on poor women and women of color. And the wages offered to hospital and nursing home workers? They hardly are the kind to lift a person up to more stable financial footing. Which is all another way to say that conservatives’ assertions that institutions like Dignity Health fulfill some spiritual mission and should therefore be treated like a church are all smoke and bluster. Instead, these institutions want cover for ongoing attempts to nickel-and-dime their own workers and to discriminate, based on religious beliefs, when it comes to how and whom these institutions serve. And they’re hoping the Roberts Court will give it to them this next term.

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