Eleventh Circuit Upholds Six-Figure Discrimination Verdict for Breastfeeding Mom ‘Constructively Discharged’ from Her Job

In an important new ruling on the issue of discrimination against breastfeeding employees, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a jury’s decision that a police department’s refusal to provide a breastfeeding officer with a satisfactory ballistic vest amounted to a violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, and in the process, it upheld a $161,000 damages award for the employee. Discrimination against breastfeeding employees is an emerging and evolving area of the law, and, if you think you have an issue related to breastfeeding discrimination, you should promptly reach out to a knowledgeable Georgia pregnancy discrimination lawyer.

The plaintiff in the case, Stephanie, was a patrol officer who eventually rose to the position of police investigator. Early in 2012, while working within her department’s narcotics task force, she became pregnant. From August to November 2012, she took 12 weeks of FMLA leave at around the time of her baby’s birth.

Eight days after returning to work, the city reassigned her from narcotics to the patrol division. The city alleged that the change was a result of Stephanie’s failure to communicate with confidential informants; Stephanie asserted that it was a result of her new supervisor’s bias against her due to her use of FMLA leave.

In patrol, unlike narcotics, the department required officers to wear ballistic vests all day. Since Stephanie was breastfeeding, her doctor asked the department to consider an assignment to another division, since the vest Stephanie used was constrictive and could cause breast infections. The department refused. The chief told Stephanie that she could either wear a “specially fitted” vest or wear no vest at all. The officer viewed both alternatives as too dangerous and resigned on the same day.

Subsequently, she sued for sex discrimination and retaliation. The department’s actions violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, she argued. The case went to trial, and a jury found in her favor, concluding that the department engaged in both pregnancy discrimination and retaliation and assessing a six-figure damages award against the city.

The city appealed but lost again. The 11th Circuit’s decision is very noteworthy because of the broad pronouncements it made regarding employment discrimination based on a mother’s breastfeeding. In 2013, the Fifth Circuit ruled that lactation was “directly caused by hormonal changes associated with pregnancy and childbirth,” which meant that breastfeeding discrimination amounted to impermissible pregnancy discrimination. The 11th Circuit announced that it agreed with that decision and that breastfeeding was a medical condition related to pregnancy and covered by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Furthermore, the opinion declared that discrimination based upon breastfeeding necessarily amounted to impermissible discrimination because it was “a common-sense conclusion that breastfeeding is a …gender-specific condition… because it ‘clearly imposes upon women a burden that male employees need not — indeed, could not — suffer.'”

The law does not give breastfeeding moms special rights; it merely says that they are entitled to the same accommodations as non-breastfeeding co-workers. The court concluded that the plaintiff’s case in this lawsuit demonstrated just that:  that the employee sought an equal accommodation, rather than a special one. She sought a properly fitting and safe vest, which other employees received, and she did not. The jury was entitled to rule in the woman’s favor and award damages.

There are many areas of discrimination law in which the law is evolving and expanding. If you believe you have been a victim of illegal discrimination at work, or if you are facing a discrimination claim as an employer, you should contact an attorney right away. The skilled Georgia pregnancy discrimination attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert have spent many years working on behalf of our clients, including both employees and employers. We are here and ready to help you.

To speak with one of our lawyers about your case, call 404-873-8048.

More blog posts:

A Georgia Woman Fired After Experiencing Period Leaks at Work Takes Her Sex Discrimination Case to the 11th Circuit, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Aug. 29, 2017

Sixth Circuit Upholds Ruling for Employer in FMLA, Pregnancy Discrimination Dispute, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Oct. 28, 2015

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