TALLAHASSEE - The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that a state law barring discrimination based on gender also applies to pregnant women, resolving divisions in lower courts and addressing a question confronting lawmakers this session.
The 1992 Florida Civil Rights Act, which bars employers from discriminating based on "race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, handicap, or marital status," includes pregnant women although the condition is not specifically identified in the law, the Supreme Court ruled in a 6-1 opinion.
"Indeed, the capacity to become pregnant is one of the most significant and obvious distinctions between the female and male sexes. For this reason, discrimination based on pregnancy 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,' " Justice Barbara Pariente wrote for the majority.
The case was filed by Peguy Delva against The Continental Group, which is a property-management firm. Delva contended, in part, that the firm would not allow her to cover other workers' shifts to earn extra money and that she was not scheduled for work after returning from maternity leave, according to court documents. A Miami-Dade County circuit court and the 3rd District Court of Appeal sided with the company. The appeals court said there was "no doubt" the Delva, a front desk manager, had a sufficient claim of discrimination but that the law did not cover pregnancy. Delva no longer works for the company.
In a dissent, Chief Justice Ricky Polston agreed with lower courts that found the "plain meaning" of the law does not address pregnancy discrimination.
"On its face, the term 'sex' does not refer to whether one is pregnant or not pregnant even though that status is biologically confined to one gender," Polston wrote.
Federal law contains an explicit ban on discrimination "on the basis of pregnancy," contained in the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act. But, unlike state law in discrimination cases, the federal law includes caps on some legal damages that depend on the size of the businesses. State law also gives plaintiffs more time to file lawsuits.
The Florida Senate unanimously approved a bill (SB 220) that would add pregnancy to the Florida Civil Rights Act, and a House companion (HB 105) is ready for a floor vote.
Despite Thursday's ruling, Rep. Lori Berman, a Lantana Democrat and sponsor of the House measure, said the Legislature still needs to act.
"I think it's great," Berman, a lawyer, said of the court's decision. "I think my bill is a codification and I think that it's just as important as ever for the Legislature to pass it and for the governor to enact it as law."