11th Circuit Holds that Breastfeeding Mothers are Protected from Discrimination under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) protects against discrimination on the basis of “pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.” The question the 11th Circuit recently faced is whether breastfeeding qualifies as a related medical condition under the PDA. Hicks v. City of Tuscaloosa, 16-13003, 2017 WL 3910426 (11th Cir. Sept. 7, 2017).

The plaintiff in the case was a police officer in Tuscaloosa, Alabama who had been assigned to the narcotics task force prior to her maternity leave and whose most recent performance evaluation showed that she exceeded expectations. Within eight days of returning from leave, the plaintiff had been demoted to a patrol assignment, which required her to wear a bulletproof vest while on duty.

The plaintiff requested that she be allowed to work at a desk job while she was breastfeeding because, as averred by her physician, the bulletproof vest could or would be problematic for the plaintiff’s milk production. Even though other employees with temporary medical conditions were allowed temporary desk assignments, the plaintiff’s supervisors denied her request for a temporary desk assignment. Instead, they offered to accommodate the plaintiff by providing a larger bulletproof vest or giving her the option to wear no bulletproof vest at all. The plaintiff resigned, asserting that any reasonable person would have been compelled to resign due to the safety issues associated with the accommodation(s) offered by her employer.

The plaintiff then filed a lawsuit alleging (1) pregnancy discrimination, (2) constructive discharge, (3) FMLA interference, and (4) FMLA retaliation. A jury found in the plaintiff’s favor on all her claims except the FMLA interference claim.

A constructive discharge claim requires a showing that a reasonable person would be compelled to resign due to intolerable working conditions, this can include intolerable harassment or discrimination. On appeal, the city argued that the plaintiff failed to establish that her working conditions – under the employer’s offered accommodations – were so discriminatory as to be intolerable.

The Court of Appeals found in favor of the plaintiff. First, they found that breastfeeding did qualify as a related medical condition to pregnancy under the PDA. The Court determined, therefore, that the employer was prohibited from discriminating against the plaintiff on the basis of her breastfeeding. Because the police department allowed other employees with temporary medical conditions the option of working a desk job, but did not provide the same accommodation to the plaintiff, the Court upheld the jury’s verdict.

The Court pointed out that while the PDA prohibits discrimination by employers on the basis of pregnancy or a related medical condition like breastfeeding, it does not require employers to accommodate such a condition. However, where an employer accommodates other temporary medical conditions, the same accommodations must be afforded to pregnant employees, and in light of this opinion, perhaps lactating women as well. Accordingly, prior to denying an employee a requested accommodation, an employer should review such denial with a critical eye, making sure that other employees have not been treated more favorably.

The St. Louis employment attorneys at McMahon Berger have been representing employers across the country in labor and employment matters for over sixty years, and are available to discuss these issues and others. As always, the foregoing is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice regarding any particular situation as every situation must be evaluated on its own facts. The choice of a lawyer is an important decision and should not be based solely on advertisements.