Labor & Employment

8th Circuit nixes suit by breastfeeding mom, says employer conduct wasn't constructive discharge

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A federal appeals court has affirmed a grant of summary judgment to the employer in a sex- and pregnancy-discrimination case, agreeing with the trial court that not having a lactation room available to the employee the day she returned from maternity leave and later having a department head encourage her to “go home to be with your babies” did not rise to the level of a constructive discharge.

Plaintiff Angela Ames also said she was told on the day of her return from maternity leave to her job as a loss-mitigation specialist for Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. in Des Moines, Iowa, that she had two weeks to make up work that had not been completed during her two-month absence, according to the Associated Press and Bloomberg Law.

However, in a Thursday decision (PDF), the St. Louis-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said this conduct did not require Ames to quit her job as she did, and hence she could not pursue the employment discrimination case she brought under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Iowa Civil Rights Act.

Ames was denied only “immediate” access to Nationwide’s lactation rooms when she returned to work in July 2010 because she hadn’t submitted required paperwork to get an access badge, the 8th Circuit explained. And the work makeup requirement reflected expectations imposed by the insurer on all employees, the three-judge all-male appellate panel said.

As far as the “go home” comment by department head Karla Neel was concerned, Ames should have complained to a Nationwide nurse or the human resources department and given the company a chance to rectify the situation rather than quitting, the 8th Circuit said. The panel also found that the insurer had made a number of efforts to accommodate Ames, and had extended her maternity leave beyond what was legally required.

As Ames told the story in her suit, she hadn’t completed paperwork for an access badge to the company’s lactation rooms because she was unaware that a badge was required. As she waited to use a wellness room instead, already in pain from not nursing, she was told by a supervisor she would have to work overtime to complete tasks that had not been completed over her maternity leave or be disciplined.

Ames then asked Neel if there was anywhere else she could go to pump her breast milk, but Neel said it was not her responsibility to provide an alternative. Instead, Ames says, Neel handed her a pen and paper and told her she needed to resign, stating: “I think it’s best that you go home to be with your babies.”

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had filed an amicus brief urging the 8th Circuit to reinstate Ames’ suit.

An argument that Ames might otherwise have made that she was, in fact, actually discharged by Nationwide was waived because it was not raised earlier.

Attorney Paige Fiedler, one of the lawyers representing Ames, said Monday she will ask the 8th Circuit to reconsider its ruling, the AP article reports.

“The opinion contains all sorts of conclusions that I don’t think are possible if it would have looked at the facts in the light most favorable to Angela,” said Fiedler, referring to the standard for deciding a summary judgment motion.

Nationwide declined to comment on the 8th Circuit ruling.

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