Texas Federal Judge Enjoins Protections for Pregnant Workers

Ballard Spahr LLP

Ballard Spahr LLP

On Tuesday, February 27, 2024, a federal judge enjoined the enforcement of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (“PWFA”) against the state of Texas. Judge James Wesley Hendrix determined that a proxy voting rule in place during the COVID-19 pandemic violated the Quorum Clause of the United States Constitution. The rule allowed members of the House of Representatives to vote by proxy during the pandemic, meaning a member could vote by delegated proxy without being physically present. Because a December 2022 funding package—which included the PWFA—passed with less than a majority of votes cast in person, Judge Hendrix determined that the House failed to meet a constitutionally compliant quorum.

The state of Texas brought the suit against the United States Department of Justice, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and other federal agencies and government actors in February 2023. It sought to block enforcement of the PWFA and an appropriation to a Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) program, which were two of the measures passed in the funding package. The challenge followed former House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s broader and unsuccessful 2020 suit to end the use of proxy voting, which lost on jurisdictional grounds as the D.C. Circuit determined it could not review an internal legislative procedure. Here, Judge Hendrix found that “[w]hile this case relates to the internal function of the legislative branch, the Court’s resolution of the dispute is ultimately a legal determination of whether the House exceeded its constitutional authority by counting physically non-present members as part of the quorum.”

Judge Hendrix determined that, unlike with the appropriation to DHS, Texas had standing with respect to the PWFA, as “Texas is injured by the costs of compliance, litigation, and administrative investigations created by the PWFA, as well as the waiver of its sovereign immunity.” Based on an analysis of the text, history, and practices of the Constitution, Judge Hendrix held that the use of the proxy rule to obtain a quorum was unconstitutional. As issued, the decision only enjoins the PWFA as applied to the Texas state government and its agencies. The ruling has no effect on the enforcement of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, or Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The PWFA expanded the rights of pregnant employees in the workplace, requiring employers to provide reasonable accommodations and other protections to pregnant workers even in the absence of an underlying disability. In assessing the balance of equities and the public interest, Judge Hendrix found that the public interest in maintaining constitutional structure outweighed the legislation’s benefits to the public.

The opinion emphasized the narrow grounds of the ruling, noting that the public interest would “weigh much heavier” if Texas were seeking an injunction as to the entire funding package. Judge Hendrix further noted that the claim involved only a “specific challenge to a particular House quorum rule as applied to one portion of an act with a known vote count” and that the decision “does not indicate that a Quorum Clause challenge could be brought against any act of Congress.” Nevertheless, the ruling potentially lays the groundwork for further challenges to pandemic-era legislation passed under similar circumstances. The federal government has seven days from the issuance of the decision to appeal.

The case is State of Texas v. Dep’t of Justice et al., No. 5:23-cv-00034 (N.D. Tex. Feb. 27, 2024).

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