MONTGOMERY, Ala. — A federal appeals court on Thursday ruled that an Alabama police department discriminated against an officer by demoting her after her maternity leave and then refusing to make accommodations that allowed her to breast-feed.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a jury’s verdict that the city of Tuscaloosa discriminated against Stephanie Hicks, who is no longer an officer with the Tuscaloosa department. The judges said there was evidence that Hicks was retaliated against for taking an allowed 12-week maternity leave. The court said the department also violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act by denying accommodations for Hicks to breast-feed, when it had made adjustments for male employees with temporary physical restrictions.
“We find that a plain reading of the PDA covers discrimination against breastfeeding mothers. This holding is consistent with the purpose of PDA and will help guarantee women the right to be free from discrimination in the workplace based on gender-specific physiological occurrences,” the three-judge panel wrote in its ruling.
Hicks said she was demoted from the narcotics unit to the patrol division eight days after returning from maternity leave. She requested a temporary desk job because the tight bulletproof vest worn by patrol officers interfered with milk production. She said the department told her she could go without a vest or wear a specially fitted one that she said had gaping holes and would inadequately protect her. Hicks quit and filed a lawsuit against the city.
In upholding the discrimination claim, the judges noted derogatory comments reportedly made about Hicks and that she was reassigned so quickly after returning to work.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed an amicus brief in the case, praised the decision.
“The Pregnancy Discrimination Act was enacted so that women would no longer be put in the position of having to choose between having a family and continuing to work, yet that is exactly what happened to Agent Hicks when she was reassigned to patrol,” said Galen Sherwin, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project.
Lawyers for the city of Tuscaloosa could not immediately be reached for comment.
The city had appealed the jury verdict, saying that Hicks had been reassigned for poor job performance. The city also argued that the department had offered to accommodate Hicks by assigning her to a safe beat with access to lactation rooms and a tailored vest.