Case Summary: Pregnancy Discrimination Act Protects Breastfeeding

In STEPHANIE HICKS v. CITY OF TUSCALOOSA, ALABAMA, the 11th Circuit Court held that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) guarantees women the right to be free from discrimination in the workplace based on gender-specific physiological occurrences - including breastfeeding.

Stephanie Hicks brought this civil action against the Tuscaloosa Police Department under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Ms. Hicks worked first as a patrol officer and then as an investigator on the narcotics task force. When she became pregnant she requested assignments that prevented late night work and weekend work, this was granted but only after being demoted only eight days after returning from FMLA leave. Hicks overheard multiple conversations in which officers of the police department used defamatory and sexist language about her. After the baby was born, Ms. Hicks requested accommodations that would have allowed her to breastfeed in the workplace and would have excused her from duties which required wearing a vest that according to her doctor could cause a breast disease that would inhibit breastfeeding. These accommodation requests were denied.  Ms. Hicks viewed these actions as a constructive discharge and filed suit. 

Ms. Hicks prevailed at a jury trial wherein she was awarded $161,319.92 plus costs and attorney fees. The City appealed but the 11th Circuit Court, of which the State of Georgia is included, affirmed the decision.

The Court stated the important legal tests as follows:

  • The PDA amended Title VII to include discrimination “on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.” - the ultimate question is “whether the evidence, when viewed as a whole, yields the reasonable inference that the employer engaged in the alleged discrimination.
  • Under the FMLA the ultimate questions are whether: “(1)Hicks availed herself of a protected right under the FMLA; (2) [s]he suffered an adverse employment decision; and (3) there is a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse employment decision.

In application of these tests to the facts as summarized above, the Court concluded there was 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. Furthermore, the Court found that the PDA covers discrimination against breastfeeding mothers and the City's failure to accommodate Hicks's requests, when it allowed accommodations to others similarly situated, constituted discriminatory constructive discharge, in violation of the PDA.