Breastfeeding Decision Upheld for Constructive Discharge

By William Vogeler, Esq. on September 12, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Working on the narcotics task force, Stephanie Hicks wore a bulletproof vest to protect her from criminals.

That all changed after she returned from maternity leave, however. She asked for an accommodation at work because she was breastfeeding, but then the attacks came from her department.

She won a pregnancy discrimination case, and the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. In Hicks v. City of Tuscaloosa, the appeals court said employers can be liable for constructive discharge when a breastfeeding mother quits.

Time Off

Hicks "exceeded expectations" before taking her leave, but her captain allegedly referred to her as "that b----" after she took time off under the Family Medical Leave Act. Eight days following her return, she was demoted to patrol and lost vehicle use, weekends off, and other privileges.

She asked for a desk job because, her doctor said, it would be better for her not to wear a patrol vest. The chief said she had to wear one, so Hicks resigned.

Hicks sued fro pregnancy discrimination and other claims. A jury agreed, and awarded her $374,000.

A trial judge reduced the award to $161,319, plus attorney's fees and costs. The city appealed.

"Ample Evidence"

The Eleventh Circuit said there was "ample evidence that Hicks was both discriminated against on the basis of her pregnancy and that she was retaliated against for taking her FMLA leave."

The court said her case straddled the line, however, between discrimination and accommodation. The judges said adverse actions against a woman for breastfeeding are prohibited, but employers are not required to "give special accommodations to breastfeeding mothers."

"While the City may not have been required to provide Hicks with special accommodations for breastfeeding, the jury found that the City's action in refusing an accommodation afforded to other employees compelled Hicks to resign," the court said. In the eyes of a jury, this constituted a constructive discharge, which is effectively an adverse action."

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