MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday recognized for the first time that employers have an obligation to provide job modifications to workers who are breastfeeding on the same terms as they accommodate workers for other conditions, and held that failing to provide them with necessary accommodations on the job can be tantamount to firing them.
In the case, Hicks v. Tuscaloosa, the court upheld a jury's verdict finding that Stephanie Hicks, who worked for the West Alabama Narcotics Task Force, was discriminated against when she was demoted to patrol duty just eight days after her return from maternity leave and then denied accommodations for breastfeeding, forcing her to quit. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for WorkLife Law submitted a friend of the court brief on behalf of 22 women’s rights organizations and helped argue the case before the court last month.
Agent Hicks had requested a desk job because the bulletproof vest officers must wear on patrol interfered with breastfeeding and put her at risk of infection and other medical complications. The department denied her request even though other officers were routinely provided the same accommodation for other reasons. Her supervisors told her that she seemed “changed,” and intimated that it was because she had the “baby blues.” They were also overheard complaining about the length of time she had taken off for maternity leave, referring to her as a “stupid cunt,” and saying they would “find any way” to “get rid of that bitch.”
“I loved my job as a police officer, but I was demeaned, demoted and discriminated against for choosing to be a mom, and then forced to choose between my job and breastfeeding,” said Hicks. “I took a stand and fought back on behalf of all women so no other moms would be put in this situation.”
This court decision follows the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Young v. U.P.S., which held that an employer’s failure to provide accommodations related to pregnancy — in that case, a request for light duty due to a lifting restriction — could amount to sex discrimination.
The court’s decision also recognizes that liability for pregnancy discrimination does not end simply because a woman is no longer pregnant. The Eleventh Circuit is only the second appellate court — after the Fifth Circuit — to hold that women who are breastfeeding are protected under Title VII, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in employment. This decision goes further by recognizing a right to equal accommodations, and that failing to provide women with those accommodations may sometimes leave them with no choice but to resign.
“The Pregnancy Discrimination Act was enacted so that women would no longer be put in the position of having to choose between having a family and continuing to work, yet that is exactly what happened to Agent Hicks when she was reassigned to patrol,” said Galen Sherwin, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “The court’s ruling vindicates the rights of new mothers to be treated equally and with dignity on the job.”
“We were very pleased that the court adopted the legal arguments and even some of the specific language in our amicus brief,” said Hilary Rau, staff attorney with the Center for WorkLife Law. “Agent Hicks was given the impossible choice between risking her life by patrolling without a properly fitting bulletproof vest and risking her health and ability to breastfeed by wearing a heavy vest that unsafely compressed her chest. This ruling is a huge victory for all new and expecting moms who need equal accommodations at work so that they can continue to support their families.”
The ACLU has previously succeeded in similar pregnancy discrimination cases, including a federal jury’s verdict against a Suffolk County, New York police department in 2006, which found the department discriminated against women officers by denying them access to limited duty positions, like working the precinct desk, during their pregnancies; and a settlement in 2013 of its complaint against the Wallingford, Connecticut police department on behalf of police officer Annie Balcastro, whom the department denied a “light duty” assignment while she was pregnant.
The ACLU has also filed recent pregnancy discrimination charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of female police officers in Cromwell, Connecticut and Frankfort, Illinois.
The 22 organizations on whose behalf the ACLU and the Center for WorkLife Law submitted the amicus brief include the ACLU of Alabama, Inc., 9to5, A Better Balance, California Women’s Law Center, Equal Rights Advocates, Family Values @ Work, Feminist Majority Foundation, Gender Justice, Legal Aid Society – Employment Law Center, Legal Momentum, Legal Voice, National Association of Women Lawyers, National Association of Working Women, National Organization for Women, National Partnership for Women & Families, National Women’s Law Center, Southwest Women’s Law Center, Women Employed, Women’s Law Center of Maryland, Inc., Women’s Law Project, and the United States Breastfeeding Committee.
Today’s opinion can be found here:
The ACLU’s brief can be found here: