With Recent Pregnancy Discrimination Ruling, Will Fla. Legislature Take Next Step?

Apr 18, 2014

Credit Andrew Bret Wallis / Getty Images

Today, there’s no Florida law on the books to protect pregnant women from workplace discrimination. For months, the Florida Supreme Court grappled with that decision, and Thursday, they ruled employers can’t discriminate against pregnant women under the state’s civil rights act. But, one lawmaker says that still needs to be codified in state law.

For more than 30 years, pregnancy has been protected from employer discrimination under federal law. But, in the Sunshine state, it’s a different story.

Under the Florida Civil Rights Act of 1992, employers are not allowed to discriminate against their employees in a number of areas, including race, sex, and marital status. But, pregnant women are not included.

And, when faced with pregnant discrimination cases, Rep. Lori Berman (D-Lantana) says there’s been a lot of confusion in the courts. She’s the chair of the Women's Legislative Caucus, as well as a sponsor of a measure that adds pregnancy as a protected class under the state’s civil rights law.

“My bill totally is in agreement with the Florida Supreme Court case. “The Supreme Court said that pregnant women are covered under the Florida Civil Rights Act,” said Berman. So, the bill, and the court case coalesce together nicely.”

Berman is talking about the recent Florida Supreme Court decision regarding the case of Peguy Delva.

Delva claims after she became pregnant, the South Florida property developing company she worked for over-scrutinized her work and refused to allow her to do her job when she came back from maternity leave.

Two lower courts ruled in favor of her employer, stating the Florida Civil Rights Act does not cover pregnant women. But, in a 6-1 opinion, a majority of the justices ruled that employers cannot discriminate against pregnant women since technically that could be based on sex, which is covered under state law. But, the justices acknowledged that it’s not explicitly stated in state law.

That’s why Berman says it’s the perfect time for the Florida Legislature to take that next step.

“I think it’s a really positive sign for my legislation. I think we should codify the Supreme Court decision. It gives legal precedent. I think it would round out the circle nicely if we codified it, and made it part of Florida law also.”

So far, there’s been overwhelming support for her legislation in her chamber. It also has the backing of a number of organizations, including the Business and Professional Women, the National Organization of Women, and the League of Women Voters.

The Florida Commission on Human Relations, which requested the legislation, is a big supporter too. Any cases that deal with unlawful employment practices are filed with them.

But, at its last stop in the House Judiciary Committee, the bill did face some resistance from the National Federation of Independent Business, which represents more than 10-thousand businesses in the state.

The group’s lobbyist Tim Nungesser says the businesses he represents are afraid that employers could be held liable for thousands of dollars in damages for these types of lawsuits—frivolous suits included. He cited a UCLA College of Law study that specifically looked at employers having to pay for attorney’s fees.

“The median cost for preparing a response to the complaint is $5,000. The median cost for responding and negotiating a settlement was $6,700, and the median cost to litigate this and provide private counsel through the trial was $150,000,” said Nungesser. “Now, I will tell you that we are here representing small businesses. Small businesses generally don’t have the insurance that would cover this type of lawsuit. So, what we’re talking about here is actual money out of the businesses pockets.”

Some Republican lawmakers also expressed reservations about a provision in the bill that they say could force employers to pay for abortions, and would like that clarified in the bill.

And, while she believes those arguments are a stretch, Berman has agreed to look into it.

And, with the unanimous passage of that panel, the bill now heads to the House floor. Meanwhile, its companion already passed the full Senate.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.