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Employment discrimination, including discrimination on the basis of sex, is prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) amended Title VII to add that discrimination "because of sex" or "on the basis of sex," includes discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. 42 U.S.C.S. § 2000e(k). The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that lactation is a related medical condition to pregnancy and thus terminations based on a woman's need to breastfeed violate the PDA.
Plaintiff Stephanie Hicks was working as an investigator on the narcotics task force at the Tuscaloosa Police Department when she became pregnant in January 2012. Hicks took twelve weeks of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) even though she was allowed only six weeks. Prior to her FMLA leave, Hicks received a performance review saying that she exceeded expectations; however, on Hicks’ first day back from leave, she was written up. Moreover, Hicks overheard her supervisor calling her names and claiming to find a way to get Hicks out of the division. After eight days, Hicks was reassigned from the narcotics division to the patrol division. As a result of the reassignment, Hicks lost her vehicle and weekends off, and she was going to receive a pay cut and different job duties. Additionally, patrol officers were required to wear ballistic vests all day, which Hicks’ doctor did not recommend for her to wear. Her requests for accommodation were not granted, with the chief suggesting that Hicks should patrol without a vest or patrol wearing a larger vest. Hicks resigned, and subsequently filed the present action against the Tuscaloosa Police Department, arguing that her reassignment from the narcotics task force to the patrol division was both a discriminatory violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) and retaliation in violation of the FMLA. Hicks further argued that the chief’s proffered options--patrolling without a vest or patrolling with an ineffective larger vest--made work conditions so intolerable that any reasonable person would have been compelled to resign. Hicks prevailed at a jury trial, and the City now appealed the denial of its motion for judgment as a matter of law, its motion for a new trial, and the allegedly erroneous jury instructions.
According to the court, for issues involving PDA, its task was to determine whether there was a convincing mosaic of circumstantial evidence that would allow a jury to infer intentional discrimination. On the other hand, the court noted that in order for a plaintiff to prove a claim under the FMLA, a plaintiff must show that: (i) she availed herself of a protected right under the FMLA; (ii) she suffered an adverse employment decision; and (iii) there was a casual connection between the protected activity and the adverse employment decision. In this case, the court held that the evidence, taken in the light most favorable to Hicks, provided ample evidence that Hicks was both discriminated against on the basis of her pregnancy and that she was retaliated against for taking her FMLA leave. Multiple overheard conversations using defamatory language plus the temporal proximity of only eight days from when she returned to when she was reassigned support the inference that there was intentional discrimination. Anent the second issue, the court noted that constructive discharge claims were appropriate when an employer discriminated against an employee to the point such that his working conditions become so intolerable that a reasonable person in the employee's position would have felt compelled to resign. The court noted that the plain reading of the PDA supported the finding that breastfeeding was covered under the aforesaid statute. The explicit language of the PDA said that it covered discrimination “because of” on “on the basis of sex” and was “not limited to discrimination because of or on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.” Given that Congress included pregnancy and childbirth and explicitly used the words "not limited to," it was a common-sense conclusion that breastfeeding was a sufficiently similar gender-specific condition covered by the broad catch-all phrase included in the PDA. Taking all of these principles, the court held that the denial of accommodations for a breastfeeding employee violated the PDA when it amounted to a constructive discharge. Accordingly, the court affirmed the judgment of the trial court.