FRANKFORT, Ill. — The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Illinois filed a lawsuit this week on behalf of a police officer who was subjected to discrimination and retaliation because of her pregnancy, ultimately forcing her off the job for seven months without a paycheck. The lawsuit is one of several ACLU cases nationwide representing female police officers who have faced similar barriers due to pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Officer Jennifer Panattoni has served the Frankfort Police Department (FPD) and her community with distinction for more than 14 years. She is an award-winning senior patrol officer, one of just three female officers in the department, and the only woman who currently works full-time patrol shifts. Her husband is a sergeant in the FPD.
“I have always wanted to be a police officer since I was a young girl. When I wake up and put on my uniform, I feel so honored to serve, but I have been punished for choosing to be a mom. I’m fighting back so that no other woman is put in this situation,” said Officer Panattoni.
When Officer Panattoni became pregnant in 2015, she asked to modify her job duties so that she could safely work through her pregnancy. She identified numerous non-patrol work duties that she could perform, such as taking walk-in complaints, conducting witness interviews, writing reports, and helping with crime prevention outreach. However, the FPD refused, claiming only officers with on-the-job injuries were entitled to “light duty.”
At the same time, FPD also made it impossible for Officer Panattoni to continue working safely on patrol. It refused to provide her with uniforms and protective gear that would fit her changing body, including a properly-sized bullet proof vest, and it denied her requests to carry some of her equipment in her pockets and vest to lessen the strain on her abdomen caused by her 25-pound duty belt.
“As my pregnancy progressed, I had to worry about whether I could still button my uniform or whether my bulletproof vest would pop open in the middle of my patrol shift. Being denied the equipment I needed took my mind out of where it should have been to keep myself and others safe, and made it harder to do my job,” said Officer Panattoni.
“It’s been nearly 40 years since Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and more than two years since the Supreme Court affirmed pregnant workers’ right to on-the-job accommodation, yet stories like Officer Panattoni’s remain commonplace,” said Gillian Thomas, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project.” Particularly in historically male-dominated jobs like policing, employers are stuck in a time warp, treating pregnancy like a problem, rather than simply a fact of life.”
FPD ultimately forced Officer Panattoni off the job and onto unpaid leave when she was 5 months pregnant. In order to have any income while out of work, she exhausted her paid benefit time — which she had planned to use while recovering from having her baby — and drew down her pension, receiving just half of her usual salary. Since Officer Panattoni’s return to work in October 2016, the FPD has retaliated against her for challenging its illegal treatment by singling her out for disparate treatment, ranging from threats of unwarranted discipline to denials of the equipment she needed to do her job.
Officer Jennifer Panattoni alleges that in refusing to temporarily modify her job duties so that she could continue working through her pregnancy, the Village of Frankfort violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Illinois Human Rights Act.
The ACLU has a track record of successfully representing pregnant law enforcement officers in similar cases, including winning a federal jury verdict against the Suffolk County, New York, police department in 2006, which had a policy like FPD’s, and obtaining a settlement in 2013 of its complaint against the Wallingford, Connecticut police department on behalf of officer Annie Balcastro, whom the department also denied a “light duty” assignment while she was pregnant.
The ACLU also recently filed a pregnancy discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of a female police officer in Cromwell, Connecticut, who was forced onto unpaid leave in her fifth month. It also filed a “friend of the court” brief in the appeal of a jury verdict in favor of a Tuscaloosa, Alabama police officer who was forced out of work for breastfeeding upon her return from maternity leave.
In that case, Hicks v Tuscaloosa, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently issued a landmark ruling affirming the jury’s decision, finding that liability for pregnancy discrimination does not end simply because a woman is no longer pregnant.
Federal law requires that pregnant workers receive the same benefits, including policies offering temporary “light duty,” as non-pregnant colleagues who are “similar in their ability or inability to work.” In its 2015 decision in Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., the Supreme Court clarified that those rights apply regardless of how those colleagues came to need light duty — that is, whether or not they were injured on the job. Young reaffirmed that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act’s mission — assuring pregnancy does not cost women their jobs — obligates employers to treat pregnant workers equally.
The complaint can found here:
More information about the case can be found here:
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