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Arkansas federal judge dismisses states’ lawsuit over pregnant worker protections

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Arkansas federal judge dismisses states’ lawsuit over pregnant worker protections

Jun 18, 2024 | 8:01 pm ET
By Sonny Albarado
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Arkansas federal judge dismisses states’ lawsuit over pregnant worker protections
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Two federal court rulings on challenges to a rule requiring employers to accommodate pregnant workers are at odds over the inclusion of abortion in the rule. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for A Better Balance)

A federal judge in Arkansas dismissed a lawsuit filed by 17 state attorneys general looking to stop a new rule that took effect Tuesday allowing workers time off and accommodations for abortions and other pregnancy-related health care.

Though the case was tossed, another federal judge in Louisiana determined earlier this week that Louisiana, Mississippi and the Catholic Conference of Bishops would not have to comply with the rule — at least temporarily.

Lawsuits filed this spring in Louisiana and Arkansas sought to halt implementation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rule that resulted from the 2022 passage of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act by Congress. The law requires employers to provide accommodations for “known limitations … arising out of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.”

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The law and the rule mean employers must grant time off or make other allowances for pregnant employees in the workplace. The rule cites lactation, potential pregnancy, miscarriage, infertility and fertility treatments, and having an abortion as scenarios where allowances should be made.

The legal disputes over the rule arose from the EEOC’s inclusion of abortion in the regulation. All of the states involved in the lawsuits have laws or constitutional provisions banning almost all abortions. The Louisiana case combined a suit filed by the attorneys general of Louisiana and Mississippi with one filed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, two Catholic diocesan organizations and the Catholic University of America.

The Arkansas lawsuit, filed in April, sought to halt implementation of the rule, arguing that it violated the U.S. Constitution and violated individual states’ sovereign immunity. The attorneys general asked the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas to declare that the EEOC had exceeded its authority by including abortion in the rule and to declare the regulation arbitrary, capricious, unlawful and invalid.

Arkansas federal judge dismisses states’ lawsuit over pregnant worker protections
U.S. District Judge D.P. Marshall Jr.

On Friday, U.S. District Judge D.P. Marshall Jr., an Obama appointee, dismissed the Arkansas case, saying the attorneys general lacked standing to sue and “haven’t shown a likelihood of irreparable harm,” one of the standards by which the ability to sue is judged.

“At bottom, the States haven’t made a compelling case for issuing a nationwide injunction of the entire EEOC regulation,” Marshall wrote in his ruling.

The states joining Arkansas and Tennessee in the lawsuit were Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah and West Virginia. 

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“This case presents a narrow disagreement over a few words, a disagreement that seems unlikely to flower into few, if any, real-world disputes, especially given the undisputed reach of the new Act and the unchallenged portions of the implementing regulation,” Marshall wrote. “The States’ fear of overreach by one branch of the federal government cannot be cured with overreach by another.”

Marshall noted that the states that sued didn’t challenge the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, nor did they challenge most of the new rule.

“The States challenge only how the regulation addresses what the States call elective abortion,” Marshall wrote, noting that the “quarrel” with the rule involves how it “addresses accommodations connected with some abortions — some, not all. The States acknowledge that some pregnant women will need, and be entitled to, workplace accommodations in connection with an abortion.”

Arkansas federal judge dismisses states’ lawsuit over pregnant worker protections
U.S. District Judge David C. Joseph

By contrast, Joseph’s ruling accepted Louisiana’s and Mississippi’s contention that they would be irreparably harmed by enforcement of the rule and the Catholic plaintiffs’ argument that the rule violates their First Amendment right to free speech and freedom of religion.

Joseph, a Trump appointee, focused on the plaintiffs’ concerns about “elective” abortions in lawsuits filed in May in the Western District of Louisiana.

“If Congress had intended to mandate that employers accommodate elective abortions under the PWFA,” he wrote, “it would have spoken clearly when enacting the statute, particularly given the enormous social, religious, and political importance of the abortion issue in our nation at this time (and, indeed, over the past 50 years).”

The judge noted that bipartisan debate in Congress specifically mentioned that the PWFA did not refer to abortion.

Joseph ruled that the EEOC “has exceeded its statutory authority to implement the PWFA and, in doing so, both unlawfully expropriated the authority of Congress and encroached upon the sovereignty of the States Plaintiffs.”

Regarding the rule’s impact on the Catholic plaintiffs, Joseph wrote that it abridges their free speech and religious freedom rights by compelling them to act and speak in ways that conflict with their beliefs. He also said the EEOC failed to include the broad religious exemption provided by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

The injunction, he added, “in no way limits, impedes or otherwise affects those covered employers who choose to implement employment policies or practices to provide leave or other workplace accommodation for the elective abortions of employees.” 

“The court has left some pregnant workers who need abortion-related accommodations to fend for themselves,” said Gaylynn Burroughs, vice president of Workplace Justice and Education at the NWLC.

In a statement to The Associated Press, Rachel Shanklin, National Women’s Entrepreneurship Director for Small Business Majority, said even the limited ruling from Louisiana would have a big impact by making it “more difficult — at least temporarily — for women in the workplace to access abortion care.”

Dina Bakst, co-founder and president of the legal advocacy group A Better Balance, condemned the ruling in Louisiana, telling The AP it “disregarded decades of legal precedent” interpreting pregnancy-related medical conditions to include abortion.

She stressed, however, that the ruling does not mean workers’ rights under the PWFA have been taken away.