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About womenslawproject

The Women's Law Project creates a more just and equitable society by advancing the rights and status of all women throughout their lives. To this end, we engage in high-impact litigation, advocacy, and education.

Women’s Law Project Files Title IX Complaints Against Pennsylvania State System Universities

On April 17th, the Women’s Law Project filed complaints with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Education against nine members of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PSSHE), asking OCR to address the historical and ongoing failure of these universities to provide equal athletic opportunity to their female students. The nine universities are Bloomsburg, Cheyney, Clarion, Indiana, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Mansfield, Millersville, and Shippensburg.

In a letter to counsel for PSSHE, Terry Fromson, managing attorney of the Women’s Law Project wrote:

“There is no excuse for the athletic disparities at these PSSHE member universities. Despite the fact that Title IX has obligated them to achieve gender equality for more than four decades, these universities have not undertaken genuine efforts to increase opportunities for or satisfy the athletic interests of their female students. It is time for PSSHE as a whole to undertake appropriate and ongoing measures to effectively and promptly address the inequities in their athletic programs.” Fromson added.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination by federally funded educational programs, requires schools to provide equal athletic opportunity, financial assistance, and recruiting support. To meet Title IX’s equal athletic opportunity requirement, a university must demonstrate that it meets one of three tests: (1) providing women with athletic opportunities in substantial proportion to their full-time undergraduate enrollment; (2) demonstrating a history and continuing practice of increasing athletic opportunities for women; or (3) effectively accommodating the athletic interests and abilities of women. Publicly available information strongly suggests that these universities are unlikely to satisfy any of these tests.

“Each of these universities has failed to provide athletic opportunities to their female students in proportion to the percentage of undergraduate women enrolled in the university. The disparities over the past ten years average between seven and almost 15 percent,” commented Sue Frietsche, senior staff attorney for the Women’s Law Project, who noted that collectively, the nine schools are missing over 900 athletic opportunities for women. “With OCR involvement and State System cooperation, this injustice can at last be corrected,” Frietsche added.


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Filed under Athletic Equity, Pennsylvania, Sports, Title IX, Women's Law Project

Court Enters Consent Decree So Pennsylvania Girls Can Wrestle

The Women’s Law Project and Flaster/Greenberg P.C. announce the successful resolution of a lawsuit on behalf of a Pennsylvania seventh-grade female student who was denied the opportunity to participate in the Line Mountain School District’s all-male wrestling program, in violation of her constitutional rights.

The lawsuit was filed in October 2013 in federal court and alleged that the district’s all-male wrestling program discriminated against girls on the basis of sex in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Equal Rights Amendment of the Pennsylvania Constitution. In January 2014, Flaster/Greenberg lawyer Abbe F. Fletman and Women’s Law Project attorney Terry L. Fromson were successful in obtaining a preliminary injunction requiring the school district to allow seventh-grader Audriana Beattie to join the all-male wrestling program for the duration of the lawsuit.

The Court has now approved a consent decree entered into by the parties that will allow Ms. Beattie to remain on the previously all-male wrestling team and other young women who wrestle competitively may join the team.

The school district has also rescinded its policy that kept girls off boys’ teams and will not adopt any policy in the future that will unlawfully deny athletic opportunity on the basis of sex.

“Wrestling is one of the fastest growing sports for young women; the school district’s agreement to resolve this action both brings the school into compliance with the law and addresses girls’ athletic interests,” said Fromson of the Women’s Law Project. “Audriana has been a competitive wrestler for more than four years, and we are pleased that she will be able to continue competing at Line Mountain,” said Fletman of Flaster/Greenberg. Because of this action, Audriana has been able to wrestle with the boys’ team, where she achieved a 6 win/13 loss record this season, while also preparing for the Pennsylvania Girls State Wrestling Championships, where she came in first in her weight class in Middle School competition.

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Filed under Athletic Equity, Title IX

Women’s Law Project Calls for UPMC to Stop Its Challenge to Equal Employment Opportunity Regulations

By Tara R. Pfeifer, WLP Staff Attorney 

Make sure your voice is heard on this issue, please sign this petition.

On February 5, 2014, Susan Frietsche, Senior Staff Attorney at the Women’s Law Project (WLP), spoke at a press conference at Pittsburgh City Council and called on the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) to put an end to its legal challenge to equal employment opportunity regulations.  The WLP joined a number of community leaders and civil rights organizations – including the SEIU, members of Pittsburgh City Council, NAACP Pittsburgh Branch, Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network
Service, and Pennsylvania NOW – in taking a stand against UPMC’s efforts to dismantle our country’s affirmative action program for federal contractors.

The issue arose in 2004, when federal auditors sought to review affirmative action plans and inspect personnel records at three UPMC locations (only one of which is still open).  UPMC initiated a legal challenge to the government’s request, taking the position that auditors from the Department of Labor Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, or OFCCP, had no cause to check the personnel records of three hospitals for compliance with affirmative action rules that apply to federal contractors and subcontractors.  UPMC lost its battles at the lower court levels, but is presently asking the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to reverse those lower court rulings.

Before our country had fair employment rules and anti-discrimination regulations, women and minorities were completely locked out of entire occupations, and to this day sex and race discrimination persist, including in the health care sector.  UPMC’s troubling attempt to eviscerate a key component of our nation’s fair employment rules takes us back to the 1950s.  As we learn more about the poison of race and sex discrimination, we are learning that if you care about patient safety, you must care about having a diverse workforce. In particular, in the health care field, workforce diversity is associated with reduced health care disparities and better patient care.  We ask UPMC to stop trying to weaken our nation’s promise of equal opportunity in the workplace and stop trying to threaten the gains that women and minorities have made over the past fifty years.

To make sure your voice is heard on this issue, please sign this petition.

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Filed under Allegheny County, Economic Justice, Employment, Equality, Pittsburgh

Working Mom Scores Preliminary Victory in Breast Pumping at Work Case

By Tara R. Pfeifer,  WLP Staff Attorney

Plaintiff, Bobbi Bockoras, won the first battle in a lawsuit against her employer, Saint-Gobain Containers, Inc. (d/b/a Verallia North America), who she alleges discriminated and retaliated against her for asserting her right to pump breast milk at work.  Ms. Bockoras is represented by the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, and the Women’s Law Project.  On Monday, February 3, 2014, following oral argument on the employer’s motion to dismiss Ms. Bockoras’ Complaint, the Honorable Mark R. Hornak of the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania ruled from the bench and denied the employer’s motion.  In her Complaint, Ms. Bockoras alleges that she repeatedly attempted to secure a private and sanitary place to express breast milk after her return to work after giving birth to her child and then faced harassment from co-workers regarding this necessary accommodation.  Ms. Bockoras further alleges that when she complained to her employer about its failure to provide a suitable place to express breast milk and the co-workers’ harassment, the employer retaliated against her by moving her from a day shift to a rotating shift, which severely disrupted her ability to care for, and to breastfeed, her infant child, and by disregarding the harassment. As a result of the Court’s denial of the employer’s motion to dismiss, Ms. Bockoras’ case will move forward.

Congratulations to Bobbi Bockoras for her fearless advocacy on behalf of working mothers!


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Filed under Employment, pregnant workers fairness, Women's Law Project, working mothers, working women

Philadelphia Enacts Pregnancy Discrimination Law

By Amal Bass, WLP Staff Attorney

In Philadelphia, it is now unlawful for an employer to deny a pregnant employee access to water, bathroom breaks, or any other reasonable accommodation that does not present an undue hardship to the employer.

On January 20, 2014, Mayor Nutter signed into law an amendment to the Philadelphia Fair Practices Ordinance that makes it an unlawful employment practice for an employer to fail to provide reasonable accommodations to employees for needs related to pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions. It is enforced by the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations.

The bill was sponsored by Councilmembers Greenlee, Reynolds Brown, and Bass. The Women’s Law Project provided testimony in support of this bill in City Council on November 22, 2013.

This amendment to the Fair Practices Ordinance fills gaps in the protection provided by the current federal and state laws, such as the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) of Title VII, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA). The PDA and the PHRA prohibit employers from discriminating against workers on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions, but many courts have narrowed the protections of these laws by permitting employers to provide accommodations only to workers with limitations arising from on-the-job injuries and by permitting employers to deny all requests for accommodations (when those requests do not arise from ADA-covered disabilities). Meanwhile, the ADA, as amended in 2008 to expand the definition of “disability” to include less severe and temporary impairments, may prohibit employers from denying reasonable accommodations to some pregnant women, but courts have not yet interpreted how the 2008 amendments will apply to women in need of only minor accommodations related to healthy pregnancies.

These gaps in legal protection result in serious consequences for pregnant workers and their families. For example, women may be forced to continue to work under conditions that are hazardous to their health, to exhaust any available leave before the birth of their babies, and/or to leave their jobs. The denial of reasonable accommodations in the workplace can have long-term implications for these women, ultimately resulting in gaps in employment and reduced income throughout their working lives.

With the enactment of this new law, employees in Philadelphia now have a right to reasonable accommodations that will protect their health, the health of their pregnancies, and their economic security. This law gives them rights similar to what they would have in New Jersey, California, Hawaii, and several other states.

It’s time for the rest of Pennsylvania to catch up!


Filed under Philadelphia City Council, Pregnancy, pregnant workers fairness, Reproductive Rights, Women's health, working mothers, working women

OCR’s Title IX Review of Penn State Comes Two Years after Advocates’ Request

By Amal Bass, WLP Staff Attorney

Two years ago, the Women’s Law Project and nine other organizations committed to the enforcement of Title IX sent a letter to then-Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali requesting that the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) perform a compliance review of Penn State under Title IX, the federal law that requires schools to take steps to prevent and remedy the effects of sexual harassment and sexual assault so that students are not denied access to an education. Last week, on January 23, 2014, Catherine E. Lhamon, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education, announced in a letter to Rodney Erickson, the President of Penn State, that OCR will finally examine the University’s handling of sexual harassment and sexual assault complaints.

The advocates’ letter, dated December 12, 2011, was signed by the Women’s Law Project, California Women’s Law Center, Legal Voice, Equal Rights Advocates, Equity Legal, National Women’s Law Center, Legal Aid Society—Employment Law Center, Women’s Sports Foundation, American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, and the Southwest Women’s Law Center. The advocates’ request came in response to reports that the University had failed to respond appropriately to allegations of sexual abuse by assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. The advocates specifically requested a review of Penn State’s policies and procedures relating to sexual harassment and violence and its handling of past student complaints of such misconduct by student athletes in light of evidence that Penn State, like other universities, has applied a double-standard in its disciplinary process that unduly favors student athletes who have been accused of sexual misconduct.

In making this request, these ten organizations explained that “based upon our work and experience, we are concerned that many schools do not have adequate procedures in place or ignore these procedures when athletes or other athletic department personnel are involved.” The request was consistent with OCR’s “Dear Colleague Letter” of April 4, 2011, which stated that school sexual harassment and sexual assault policies and procedures “must apply to all students, including athletes” and that complaints implicating student athletes “must not be addressed solely by athletics department procedures.”

As explained in the December 12, 2011 letter, and further discussed in the Women’s Law Project’s report, Through the Lens of Equality: Eliminating Sex Bias to Improve the Health of Pennsylvania’s Women, research has shown that a disproportionately high percentage of perpetrators of sexual assault on college campuses are male student-athletes, who may be benefitting from school disciplinary systems that are skewed in their favor. The advocates attached to their request a statement by Vicky L. Triponey, the Former Vice President for Student Affairs at Penn State University (2003-2007), in which she explains that the President of the University and the Head Football coach participated in discussions about how to handle complaints against football players, ultimately resulting in “accommodations that put us in the position of treating football players more favorably than other students accused of violating the community standards as defined by the student code of conduct.”

OCR must hold Penn State accountable for any deviation from its obligations under Title IX to address and prevent sexual harassment and sexual assault, including harassment and violence perpetrated by student-athletes. Hopefully, OCR’s scrutiny of Penn State’s policies and practices will improve the safety of the campus and ensure that its students will receive the educational opportunities that brought them to Penn State in the first place.

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Filed under college campuses, Education, Rape, Sexual Assault, Sexual harassment, Title IX

Proposed Changes to PA Orphans’ Court Rules Seek to Make the Second-Parent Adoption Process Consistent Statewide

By Tara R. Pfeifer, WLP Staff Attorney

In October 2013, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Orphans’ Court Procedural Rules Committee published proposed new and amended adoption rules for public comment.  The Rules Committee explained that the proposed amendments were intended, in part, to “implement and facilitate the Supreme Court’s decision in In re Adoption of R.B.F. and R.C.F., 803 A.2d 1195 (Pa. 2002).”   The In re R.B.F. decision recognized and secured the right to second-parent adoption in Pennsylvania.  A second-parent adoption is the adoption of a child by the domestic partner of the child’s unmarried parent resulting in an intact family in which the child has two legal parents.

On Wednesday, January 22, 2014, Susan Frietsche and Tara R. Pfeifer of the Women’s Law Project (WLP) submitted comments on the proposed rule amendments to the Orphans’ Court Rules Committee. Historically, WLP has played a pivotal part in advocating for and litigating second-parent adoption rights in Pennsylvania, including our key role in In re R.B.F.  Accordingly, WLP has a longstanding interest in ensuring that the benefits of adoption are equally available to the children of same-sex couples as to the children of opposite-sex couples.

In its comments, WLP commended the Committee for proposing amendments that strive to make second-parent adoptions a uniform and just process across the Commonwealth.  WLP noted that without statewide consistency in the second-parent adoption process, county-by-county
variations in practice exist and disparate treatment of second-parent adoption petitioners may result.  WLP’s comments included suggestions intended to further concretize best practices for second-parent adoptions.

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Filed under Adoption, LGBTQ

Pregnant Workers Have More Rights in New Jersey Than in Pennsylvania

By Amal Bass, WLP Staff Attorney

On Tuesday, January 21, 2014, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed into law a bill that expands the anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation protections of New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD). The NJLAD will now require employers to provide reasonable accommodations — such as rest periods, bathroom breaks, or access to water — to employees with needs related to pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. The New Jersey legislature passed this bill unanimously in the state Senate in November and almost unanimously in the General Assembly earlier this month.

This law will fill the gaps in the protection for pregnant workers provided by the existing laws, such as Title VII’s Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). While the PDA prohibits employers from discriminating against workers on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions, courts have interpreted it narrowly to exclude protection in many situations. For example, many courts have permitted employers to provide accommodations only to workers with limitations arising from on-the-job injuries and have permitted employers to treat all employees equally badly by denying all requests for accommodations (when those requests do not arise from ADA-covered disabilities).

The ADA, as amended in 2008 to expand the definition of “disability” to include temporary and less severe impairments, may require employers to provide some pregnant women with reasonable accommodations in the workplace, as long as those accommodations do not impose an undue hardship on the employer. However, it remains to be seen how the courts will apply the new protections to pregnant workers whose employers have denied their requests for reasonable accommodations. While a pregnancy-related impairment that substantially limits a major life activity may be a disability under the ADA, pregnancy itself is not a disability. In many situations, the employee is having a healthy pregnancy and needs only a minor accommodation.

These gaps in the law can have serious consequences for pregnant workers and their families. When an employer denies a request for a reasonable accommodation, such as help with heavy lifting or access to a chair, the employee may be forced to: (1) continue working under conditions that place her health and the health of her pregnancy at risk, (2) exhaust any leave she may have had prior to the birth of her baby, and/or (3) leave her job to protect her health, often resulting in loss of employer-provided health insurance in addition to loss of income. Women who are forced to leave the workforce under these circumstances, which results in a gap in employment and a loss of seniority, are at risk for reduced income throughout their working lives.

Now, with these expansions to the NJLAD, women in New Jersey will be better able to stay employed throughout the duration of their pregnancies, maintain their health, and increase their ability to provide for their families financially over the long-term.

Women in Pennsylvania deserve the same rights in the workplace as they would have in New Jersey, in several other states, including California and Hawaii, and in New York City. Philadelphia City Councilmembers Greenlee, Reynolds Brown, and Bass have introduced a bill that would protect women in Philadelphia, and, as part of the Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health, Representative Mark Painter (D-Montgomery) and Senator Matt Smith (D-Allegheny) have announced plans to introduce a similar bill on the state level. Additionally, in the hopes of expanding these rights nation-wide, Senator Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania) has introduced the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act.

No woman should be forced to choose between the health of her pregnancy and her job — regardless of the state in which she works.

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Filed under economic security, Health Care, PA Legislature, Philadelphia City Council, Pregnancy, pregnant workers fairness, Reproductive Rights, Women's health

The Corbett Administration’s Unhealthy Pennsylvania Proposal

By Amal Bass, WLP Staff Attorney

Instead of expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, as all of Pennsylvania’s neighboring states have done, the Corbett Administration has proposed a different plan in its Healthy Pennsylvania 1115 Application (“Healthy Pennsylvania Proposal), which it claims will extend health care coverage to 500,000 uninsured adults. On Monday, January 13, 2014, Carol E. Tracy and Tara R. Pfeifer of the Women’s Law Project (WLP) submitted comments on this proposal to Secretary Beverly Mackereth of the Department of Public Welfare (DPW).

In its comments, WLP urged Governor Corbett to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act rather than pursue the Healthy Pennsylvania Proposal. If implemented, the Governor’s proposed plan will negatively affect women, who make up a large percentage of Pennsylvania’s low-income population. The concerning aspects of this proposal include:

  • A Premium Requirement That Will Make Health Care Inaccessible.
    The Healthy Pennsylvania Proposal would impose a premium on individuals who make as little as $479 per month. This requirement would be burdensome for low-income Pennsylvanians, many of whom are women, and would likely result in loss of coverage.
  • Cuts to Health Care Benefits for the 1.2 Million Individuals Currently on Medicaid.
    The Healthy Pennsylvania Proposal places Medicaid recipients onto high risk or low-risk plans, both of which provide dramatically less coverage than what is available right now.
  • A Work Search Requirement That Creates Unnecessary, Costly, and Burdensome Obstacles to Obtaining Health Care.
    The Healthy Pennsylvania Proposal requires all newly eligible and many existing Medicaid recipients to prove that they applied for 12 jobs each month, even though the majority of people in need of Medicaid expansion are already working and the additional burden would be especially difficult for many Pennsylvanians currently on Medicaid, such as individuals with disabilities. Those who are unable to prove that they have met this requirement face severe consequences, including a lockout of coverage for up to nine months.
  • Severely Limited Access to Women’s Health Services
    The Healthy Pennsylvania Proposal seeks to (a) exclude coverage for family planning services, (b) prohibit the ability of Medicaid enrollees to choose the provider of family planning services, and (c) prevent access to robust provider networks by allowing enrollment in private plans offered outside of the Marketplace.
  • An Implied End to SelectPlan for Women
    The Healthy Pennsylvania Proposal does not explicitly state that Pennsylvania plans to end SelectPlan for Women; however, the threat is apparent. SelectPlan has extended coverage for Medicaid to uninsured women between 18 and 44 years of age whose incomes are below 185% of the federal poverty line since 2008, and it should be continued beyond its June 2014 expiration date.

Pennsylvania, which ranks 32nd out of 50 states regarding the status of women’s health, must do better to improve its citizen’s access to health care. To do so, Pennsylvania must shelve its flawed Healthy Pennsylvania Proposal and instead expand Medicaid.

For more information on each of these points, see WLP’s comments.

Also, for more information on poverty and women’s health, see the Women’s Law Project’s report, Through the Lens of Equality: Eliminating Sex Bias to Improve the Health of Pennsylvania’s Women.

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Filed under Health Care, Health insurance, PA Legislature, Pennsylvania, Women's health

Bill Protecting Domestic Violence Victims Unanimously Passes in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives

By Sarah Bugay, WLP Intern

On Tuesday, January 14 2014, HB 1796, legislation that seeks to prohibit local nuisance ordinances from penalizing tenants for calling the police to respond to domestic violence and other emergencies, passed unanimously in the Pennsylvania House.  HB 1796, a bill sponsored by Rep. Todd Stephens (R-Montgomery), is part of the  first phase of legislation of the Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health, a comprehensive, proactive initiative to help Pennsylvania’s women by focusing on a wide range of legal and policy barriers to women’s health and equality.  (Also see WLP-WomenVote PA press release about the Agenda.)

In August 2013, the New York Times brought national attention to a case which exposed a troubling consequence of local nuisance ordinances in its article, Victims’ Dilemma-911 Calls Can Bring Eviction. Domestic violence victim, Lakisha Briggs, had to choose between protecting herself and her three year old daughter from her violent ex-boyfriend, or eviction by her landlord for contacting the Norristown, PA, police too many times.  In April 2013, the ACLU brought a suit against the Borough of Norristown challenging the constitutionality of such a nuisance ordinance.   Thus, while these municipal nuisance ordinances may be intended to protect neighborhoods from disruptive neighbors, they fail to carve out protections for victims of domestic violence and crime who became faced with an untenable choice between having a home and living with violence.  HB 1796 prevents local nuisance ordinances from forcing domestic violence victims to make that choice.

Following its unanimous passage in the House, HB 1796 will now move onto the Senate for consideration.  WLP applauds the members of the PA House who clearly recognized the importance of this bill and protecting victims of domestic violence.

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Filed under Domestic violence, PA Legislature