Federal Court Refuses to Dismiss IPR-Litigated Discrimination Suit Brought by Gestational Surrogate Denied Lactation Breaks

A federal judge in California has refused to dismiss an IPR-litigated discrimination suit against the Los Angeles Airport Marriott in which a longtime employee and gestational surrogate seeks relief for being denied lactation breaks.

The first-of-its-kind ruling concludes that plaintiff Mary Gonzales, who was prevented from taking twice-daily breaks to express breast milk even as other recently pregnant employees were allowed such an accommodation, has successfully stated claims against the hotel under both federal and California law.

“This is big win not only for Mary, but for women throughout California and across the country,” said John Davisson, an IPR student attorney who is working on Gonzales’s case. “This decision makes it clear that gestational surrogates and non-traditional mothers enjoy the same legal protections against pregnancy discrimination as mothers who have infants at home. It’s not up to Marriott to pick and choose.”

Gonzales is a cashier and general accountant at Marriott with a passion for helping individuals and couples struggling with infertility to build their families. In April of 2014, she gave birth to a healthy child pursuant to a surrogacy agreement.

In June of that year, when her pregnancy disability leave ended, Gonzales returned to work at Marriott. Gonzales would express milk at work for about 30 minutes twice a day to provide milk to the child she delivered, to receive personal health benefits of lactation, and ultimately to donate to women who were unable to produce sufficient milk for their own children.

But just a few weeks after returning to her job, Gonzales’s manager gave her 30 days’ warning that she would no longer be allowed to take breaks to express milk. Unlike other recently pregnant employees at Marriott who were permitted paid lactation breaks, Gonzales was told she could only use her lunch period. Gonzales requested to meet with Marriott officials to discuss an accommodation, but Marriott denied that she had any right to the breaks and declined Ms. Gonzales’s offer to bring in a doctor’s note detailing her need for the breaks.

As a result, Gonzales was left with no option but to devote her brief lunch period to expressing milk, instead taking her lunch during her 10-minute morning break. Gonzales suffered clogged ducts, severe breast pain and soreness, blisters, and loss of sleep in order to express milk at night. She was also prevented from having lunch with her colleagues and excluded from midday company social events.

Gonzales, who is jointly represented by IPR and San Francisco Bay Area-based Campins Benham-Baker, LLP, filed suit in the United States District Court for the Central District of California in May alleging discrimination and failure to accommodate under federal and state laws.

Though Marriott attempted to have the suit dismissed, Judge Margaret M. Morrow denied its motion on all counts. Her ruling rejected Marriott’s argument that accommodations for pregnancy-related conditions were only required for mothers who were nursing infant children at home.

“Marriott’s dismissal of the ‘personal health benefits’ of lactation—which it compares to ‘exercising during the workday’—is unfounded,” she added.

Judge Morrow found that “a reasonable jury could conclude that Gonzales was subjected to the treatment she was because Marriott perceived she did not conform to stereotypical views of how women act as it relates to motherhood or child bearing.” With this decision, Judge Morrow rejected Marriott’s claim that its treatment of Ms. Gonzales did not constitute sex discrimination because the “stereotype of legitimate motherhood” is not an actionable sex-based stereotype.

“This case is about preventing employers from denying employees their rightful workplace protections on the basis of their reproductive choices,” said Connor Cory, another Georgetown University student attorney representing Gonzales. “The circumstances of a woman’s pregnancy should have no bearing on her right to be free from sex discrimination or her eligibility for a reasonable accommodation.”

The case is captioned Gonzales v. Marriott International, Inc. and has the case number CV 15-03301 MMM (PJWx). Gonzales’s complaint is available here, and Judge Morrow’s decision can be viewed here.

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