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Employment Law Blog
James Tarquin, P.A
As part of our commitment to assist and educate employees in fighting back against the abusive employment practices of employers, we offer a broad range of information about employment law issues in our employment blog.

Eleventh Circuit Court Of Appeals Rules That Breastfeeding Is Covered By Pregnancy Discrimination Act

Mother breastfeeding

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (PDA), prohibits employers from discriminating against women on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. The PDA’s amendment to Title VII clarified that discrimination based on pregnancy is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII. As explained by the U.S. Supreme Court in California Fed. Sav. & Loan Ass’n v. Guerra, 479 U.S. 272 (1987), the essential purpose behind the PDA was “to guarantee women the basic right to participate fully and equally in the workforce, without denying them the fundamental right to full participation in family life.”

Adopting the narrow, self-serving interpretation of the PDA advocated by employers, some federal courts have determined that the PDA does not cover discrimination against breastfeeding because breastfeeding is not pregnancy, child birth, or a related medical condition. In holding that breastfeeding is not covered under the PDA, these courts reasoned that breastfeeding is an event that occurs after a woman is pregnant and, thus, is not a pregnancy-related condition. These courts, as observed by the U.S. District Court for Oregon in Jacobson v. Regent Assisted Living, Inc., 1999 WL 373790 (D. Or. Apr. 9, 1999), provided employers with a loophole for avoiding liability under the PDA because they could simply “wait until after the employee gives birth and then terminate her some time later.”

Recognizing how a narrow reading of the PDA has been used to limit the protection afforded by the PDA, the more recent trend among federal courts has been to construe the PDA’s phrase “pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions” expansively and find that breastfeeding is within the scope of the PDA’s protection. In Hicks v. City of Tuscaloosa, 870 F.3d 1253 (11th Cir. 2017), the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals aligned itself with this recent line of decisions by holding that breastfeeding is covered by the PDA.

Breastfeeding Mother’s Working Conditions Made Intolerable 

In that case, Stephanie Hicks (Hicks) brought a pregnancy discrimination claim against her former employer, the City of Tuscaloosa, Alabama Police Department (City) under the PDA. Hicks worked for the City as a patrol officer and then as an investigator on the narcotics task force. While working on the narcotics task force, Hicks became pregnant. Eight days after she returned from leave under the Family Medical Leave Act for the childbirth, Hicks was reassigned to patrol duty. As a result of the reassignment, Hicks lost her vehicle and weekends off, and she was going to receive a pay cut and different job duties. Hicks was also required to wear a ballistic vest all day while on patrol duty.

After the transfer, Hicks’ doctor wrote a letter to the Chief of Police recommending that she be considered for alternative duties because the ballistic vest she now was obligated to wear on patrol duty was restrictive and could cause breast infections that lead to an inability to breastfeed. However, the Chief of Police did not believe that Hicks had any limitations because other breastfeeding officers had worn ballistic vests without any difficulties. 

Hicks then asked the Chief of Police for a desk job so that she would not have to wear a ballistic vest. As the Chief of Police did not believe that breastfeeding was a condition that justified alternative duty, he told Hicks that her only choices for an accommodation were not wearing a vest or wearing a vest that could be “specially fitted” for her. Hicks considered the Chief of Police’s purported accommodations intolerable because not wearing a vest was too dangerous and wearing a “specially fitted” vest was ineffective as it left dangerous holes. Hicks resigned that day. 

In bringing a pregnancy discrimination claim against the City, Hicks maintained that the Chief of Police’s purported accommodations of requiring her to patrol without a ballistic vest or patrolling with an ineffective ballistic vest made her working conditions so intolerable that a reasonable person would have been compelled to resign. As determined by the U.S. Supreme Court in Green v. Brenna, 136 S.Ct. 1769 (2016), “when the employee resigns in the face of such circumstances, Title VII treats that resignation as tantamount to an actual discharge.” Thus, Hicks claimed that the City’s failure to accommodate her breastfeeding requests constituted a discriminatory constructive discharge in violation of the PDA.

Breastfeeding Mothers Protected From Discrimination

The jury found that the City constructively discharged Hicks in violation of the PDA because the purported accommodations offered by the Chief of Police were so intolerable that a reasonable person would be forced to resign. On appeal, the City argued that the trial court should have dismissed Hicks’ pregnancy discrimination claim before submitting it to the jury for resolution because the PDA does not cover discrimination against breastfeeding mothers. The Eleventh Circuit rejected the City’s argument and upheld the jury’s finding that Hicks’ suffered discrimination in violation of the PDA. 

On appeal, the threshold issue before the Eleventh Circuit was whether breastfeeding is a condition related to pregnancy and, therefore covered by the PDA. In resolving this issue, the appellate observed that the “PDA amended Title VII to add that discrimination ‘because of sex’ or ‘on the basis of sex’ includes discrimination ‘on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.’ ” Discriminating against a woman because she is breastfeeding, the appellate court reasoned, constitutes discrimination “because of sex,” including discrimination “on the basis of pregnancy,” because “breastfeeding is a gender-specific condition” since it “clearly imposes upon women a burden that male employees need not—indeed, could not-suffer.” The appellate court further explained that the “PDA would be rendered a nullity if women were protected during a pregnancy but then could be readily terminated for breastfeeding, an important pregnancy-related physiological process,” after their pregnancy. Thus, the Eleventh Circuit concluded, breastfeeding is a condition related to pregnancy and the PDA prohibits employers from discriminating against breastfeeding mothers.

Free Consultation With Ocala Pregnancy Discrimination Lawyers

Based in Ocala, Florida and representing employees throughout Central Florida, we have almost twenty years of experience representing employees who have been subjected to pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. If you have been the victim of pregnancy discrimination, or have questions about your protection from pregnancy discrimination as a breastfeeding mother, please contact our office for a free consultation with our Central Florida pregnancy discrimination attorneys. Our employee rights law firm takes pregnancy discrimination cases on a contingency fee basis. This means that there are no attorney’s fees incurred unless there is a recovery and our attorney’s fees come solely from the monetary award that you recover. 

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