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Court Rules Against Breast Feeding Employee Who Claimed Discrimination

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has dismissed the discrimination claims of a female employee returning to work after giving birth to her child. Ames v. Nationwide Mutual Ins. Co. , (8th Cir., March 13, 2014).

According to the Court’s decision, upon return to work following her approved leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, Angela Ames, an employee of Nationwide Mutual Ins. Co., was feeling overwhelmed with work on her first day back as a loss-mitigation specialist. Her two-month-old baby needed to be nursed, according to the ruling, but she couldn’t use the company’s lactation room because she hadn’t completed the paperwork that mothers are required to fill out for access.

After waiting for a “wellness” room to open up, Ms. Ames’ boss warned her that she had two weeks to complete all the work that had piled up during her absence. As she became visibly upset, her boss told her: “You know, I think it’s best that you go home to be with your babies.” He then handed her a pen and a piece of paper and dictated her resignation letter, according to the ruling.

Ms. Ames quit, claiming constructive discharge. Ms. Ames sued Nationwide in 2012, alleging sex and pregnancy discrimination. She claimed the lack of an available lactation room, “her urgent need to express milk,” and Nationwide’s “unrealistic and unreasonable expectations about her work production” left her no choice but to resign. The Iowa District Court granted Nationwide summary judgment and dismissed the action. On March 13, 2014, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Eighth Circuit, in a unanimous decision, held that Nationwide didn’t force Ms. Ames to resign but instead “sought to accommodate [her] needs.” The Court continued, that although Nationwide incorrectly calculated Ames’s [Family & Medical Leave Act] leave, it made efforts to ameliorate the impact of its mistake. . . . Furthermore, even though [Nationwide department head Karla] Neel discouraged Ames from taking unpaid leave up to August, Neel gave Ames an extra week of maternity leave, which gave Ames more than thirty days to prepare for her return to work. Rather than intentionally rendering Ames’s work conditions intolerable, the record shows that Nationwide sought to accommodate Ames’s needs.”

“Moreover,” continued the panel, “Ames was denied immediate access to a lactation room only because she had not completed the paperwork to gain badge access. Every nursing mother was required to complete the same paperwork and was subjected to the same three-day waiting period.”

The Eighth Circuit also noted that, by not going back to the wellness room to see if it were open or alerting human resources about her predicament, Ms. Ames “failed to avail herself of the channels of communication provided by Nationwide to deal with her problem.”

The Court concluded that there was no constructive discharge claim and that the company did not compel resignation. On the contrary, “Nationwide’s several attempts to accommodate Ames show its intent to maintain an employment relationship with Ames, not force her to quit,” the court wrote.

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