Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Court Allows Student's Pregnancy Discrimination Lawsuit to Proceed

A federal court in Florida has refused to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a former student against Northwest Florida State College alleging that the institution's failure to reinstate her after a medical leave necessity by complications due to pregnancy violated her rights under Title IX. In reaching this decision, the court confirmed that indeed, Title IX's private right of action encompasses pregnancy discrimination claims.  The university had disputed this point by arguing that pregnancy discrimination is only covered in the regulations and not expressly mentioned in the statute, a factor that determines whether a plaintiff can file a lawsuit that seeks damages and other remedies for violations of Title IX. Nevertheless, the court concluded that pregnancy discrimination is included in the meaning of sex discrimination as Congress understood it when it enacted Title IX. For example, the court noted that Title IX's sponsor Senator Birch Bayh specifically mentioned pregnancy discrimination when describing the "social evil" Title IX was intended to address.  Additionally, though the regulations cannot themselves give rise to a cause of action, the fact that the Department of Education's predecessor agency interpreted sex discrimination to include pregnancy discrimination when promulgating Title IX's implementing regulations is an interpretation to which the court defers.

The court's sound reasoning in this case reminds me of the Supreme Court's decision in Jackson v. Birmingham School District, which similarly confirmed Title IX's private right of action includes retaliation claims even though retaliation is not expressly mentioned in the statute itself.  In that case as well the Court refused to impose an unduly narrow construction on the meaning of sex discrimination and affirmed Congress's intent to broadly address the issue.

Decision: Conley v. Northwest Florida State College, 2015 WL 7180504 (N.D. Fla. Nov. 12 2015).