Florida Supreme Court Rules Pregnancy Discrimination Violates State Law

All Florida small business owners must be aware of their obligations under federal and state civil rights laws. It is against the law for any employer to discriminate against an employee (or potential employee) on the basis of sex, race, age or marital status, among protected characteristics. Discrimination may include conduct such as segregating employees on the basis of a protected characteristics, or limiting their opportunities for work in advancement in any way.

In 1978, Congress amended federal civil rights law to prevent employment discrimination on the basis of “pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.” The Florida Civil Rights Act, which governs claims in state courts, does not expressly mention pregnancy, although it does broadly prohibit discrimination based on an employee’s sex. But the Florida Supreme Court recently held that sex discrimination automatically includes pregnancy discrimination.

Delva v. The Continental Group, Inc.

Peguy Delva worked as a front desk clerk for a property owned by The Continental Group, Inc. In 2011, Delva sued the company, claiming it took “adverse employment action” against her due to her pregnancy. She said the company “conducted heightened scrutiny of her work” during her pregnancy, and denied her extra shifts before and after her maternity leave.

Delva brought her lawsuit under Florida state law. The trial court dismissed her complaint on the grounds that the Florida Civil Rights Act did not recognize pregnancy discrimination as a separate cause of action. An intermediate appeals court affirmed that decision, although it acknowledged another Florida appeals courts previously held the state’s ban on sex discrimination covered pregnancy discrimination. Because of this conflict, the Florida Supreme Court agreed to hear Delva’s appeal.

By a 6-1 vote, the Supreme Court decided to reinstate Delva’s lawsuit. Justice Barbara J. Pariente, writing for the majority, said pregnancy discrimination “is in fact discrimination based on sex because it is discrimination as to a natural condition unique to only one sex and that arises because of an individual’s sex.” In other words, since only women may become pregnant, any adverse employment action taken against a pregnant woman is, by definition, discrimination based on sex.

Chief Justice Ricky Polston was the lone dissenting vote. He argued the “plain meaning” of “sex,” as used in the Florida Civil Rights Act, referred only to gender and not to any condition, like pregnancy, that might only apply to one gender or the other. The chief justice further noted that even if pregnancy discrimination is not covered by state law, Delva could still sue her employer under federal law.

Employers Are Now On Notice

Although the Supreme Court’s decision makes it clear pregnancy discrimination is already covered under the Florida Civil Rights Act, state legislators may amend the law to make this point explicit. The Florida Senate recently approved a bill that would add pregnancy to the list of protected characteristics under state law. As of this writing, the measure awaits approval by the Florida House of Representatives and the governor.

Regardless of the legislature’s actions, all employers are now on notice that pregnancy discrimination will not be tolerated by Florida courts. It is important for all Florida business owners to familiarize themselves with state and federal laws on this subject, and to seek the counsel of an experienced Florida business attorney. Contact Naples attorney John S. Sarrett today if you have any questions.

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