Pregnancy Discrimination Case Causes Controversy, Although Maybe Not for the Right Reason

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision not to hear an employee’s appeal in a pregnancy discrimination case has prompted a substantial amount of discussion and commentary, largely due to statements made by the district court in its 2012 order granting summary judgment for the defendant. Ames v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co. (“Ames I“), No. 4:11-cv-00359, mem. op. and order (C.D. Iowa, Oct. 16, 2012). Access to a lactation room was a central issue in the plaintiff’s case. The district court noted that disparate treatment based on lactation might not constitute gender discrimination because men might also be able to produce milk. While criticism and even ridicule of that particular statement might be warranted, it was not a significant part of the court’s decision, nor of the Eighth Circuit’s order affirming it. Ames v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co. (“Ames II“), 760 F.3d 763 (8th Cir. 2014). A greater concern might be how this case affects the legal landscape of reasonable accommodations related to pregnancy.

We wrote about the Ames case after the Eighth Circuit issued its decision last year. The plaintiff claimed that her employer was dismissive of complications during her pregnancy in 2009 and 2010, and that it essentially bullied her out of her job when she returned to work after giving birth. A disability case manager told her about the availability of lactation rooms during her maternity leave, but he allegedly failed to tell her about the required application with three days’ processing time. She claims that she was denied access to the lactation room because she had not completed the paperwork, and that when she complained to her department head, he offered to help her compose a letter of resignation.

The plaintiff filed suit for gender discrimination under state law and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, and under a provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requiring “reasonable break time for nursing mothers.” 29 U.S.C. ยง 207(r). The district court found that this portion of the FLSA does not provide employees with a private cause of action. Ames I at 11. It further found that any adverse action she experienced was due to her failure to “familiariz[e] herself with Nationwide’s lactation policy.” Id. at 27. The appellate court only considered the issues of constructive and actual discharge. Ames II, 760 F.3d at 767.

The part of the district court’s order that has received recent attention was part of a footnote and not directly related to the ruling. In noting that the plaintiff had “not presented sufficient evidence that lactation is a medical condition related to pregnancy,” Ames I at 13, n. 28, the court took judicial notice of several facts: the ability of “adoptive mothers [to] breast-feed their adoptive babies” and scientific evidence that “even men have milk ducts and the hormones responsible for milk production.” Id. It included a link to an article in Scientific American about male lactation.

The court’s statement on male lactation certainly seems odd, but a bigger concern may be the lack of attention to the employer’s lactation policy. The extent to which employers must provide “reasonable accommodations” to employees who are pregnant or have recently given birth remains unclear. The district court acknowledged the “burdens and stresses associated with parenthood,” id. at 28, but it held that the plaintiff should have been able to abide by the employer’s seemingly labyrinthine procedures for requesting an accommodation.

The pregnancy discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates advocate for the rights of New York City area workers. Contact us today, online or at (212) 248-7431, to schedule a free and confidential consultation with a dedicated employee rights advocate.

More Blog Posts:

Wall Street Bank Named in Pregnancy Discrimination Lawsuit in New York State Court, New York Employment Attorney Blog, January 7, 2015
Jury Awards Over $185 Million in Damages in Pregnancy Discrimination Lawsuit, New York Employment Attorney Blog, November 26, 2014
Lawsuit Alleging Denial of Maternity Leave for Puppy Is Satire, but Pregnancy Discrimination Is No Joke, New York Employment Attorney Blog, November 19, 2014

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