11th Circuit Upholds Pregnancy Discrimination Award for Breastfeeding Police Officer

Author: Robert S. Teachout, XpertHR Legal Editor

September 15, 2017

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a $161,000 jury award to an Alabama narcotics officer whose employer refused to accommodate her need to pump breast milk following her maternity leave. The jury had found the employer illegally retaliated against the officer under both the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), and also constructively discharged and discriminated against her.

Stephanie Hicks's supervisors issued a disciplinary warning on the first day she returned to work following 12 weeks of FMLA leave for the birth of her child. A few days later, she was issued a quarterly evaluation, which overlapped her FMLA leave, faulting her performance for job duties for which she had not been trained. Her supervisor also complained about Hicks taking 12 weeks of FMLA leave instead of only six weeks. When Hicks needed to express breast milk, she was required to do so in a station locker room that was open to the public and was criticized for "disappearing."

Just seven days after her return to work, Hicks was involuntarily transferred to a patrol position that required her to work weekend and night shifts, take a salary cut and lose the use of her police car. The patrol position also required her to wear a ballistic vest that her doctor warned "could cause breast infections that lead to an inability to breastfeed."

When Hicks requested a temporary desk assignment as an accommodation (that had been provided for other officers when they were breastfeeding), the city instead offered to allow Hicks to not wear a vest or wear a vest that was looser but would not provide full protection. Feeling that her choice was to risk her safety or stop breastfeeding, Hicks resigned.

In its ruling, the 11th Circuit held that lactation is a "medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth" protected by the PDA, stating "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.'" The court ruled that the employer's offered breastfeeding accommodations were so deficient that "any reasonable person" in Hicks's position "would have been compelled to resign."

The case is one of the first federal appellate court cases addressing pregnancy and lactation accommodation after the Supreme Court's 2015 Young v. United Parcel Service ruling in favor of a former UPS driver to whom the company declined to offer a light-duty assignment after she became pregnant.