The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has affirmed a jury verdict in favor of a former Alabama police officer on her pregnancy and Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) claims. Hicks v. City of Tuscaloosa, Ala., No. 16-13003 (11th Cir. Sept. 7, 2017). The Eleventh Circuit held that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) bars bias against breastfeeding mothers and affirmed an award of $161,319.92 plus costs and attorneys’ fees to the plaintiff.
Former officer Stephanie Hicks claimed that, in violation of the PDA, she was transferred to a less desirable position and forced to quit after returning from maternity leave and requesting an accommodation to breastfeed. She also sued for interference and retaliation under the FMLA, claiming that after she returned from maternity leave she overheard her supervisor commenting to her captain about finding ways to write Hicks up and “get her out of here,” apparently because Hicks had taken her full 12 weeks of unpaid leave, which was longer than her supervisor wanted.
The police department argued that Hicks was reassigned because she had not been doing her job and she failed to meet with several confidential informants assigned to her by her new boss.
The three-judge panel held there was “sufficient evidence of discrimination” by the Tuscaloosa Police Department against Hicks when she was demoted from the narcotics division to a patrol assignment a mere eight days after returning from maternity leave. Not only was Hicks assignment changed, but her pay was cut, she would no longer have a vehicle, and she was required to work weekends. Moreover, Hicks alleged she was denied an accommodation for breastfeeding and then forced to resign due to the lack of accommodation when the police department placed her on an assignment that required her to wear a bullet-proof vest.
The Court sided with the plaintiff after concluding that “[m]ultiple 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.” It also noted the new job duties required Hicks, who was breastfeeding at the time, to wear a ballistic vest all day long, which she claimed wasn’t possible, and when Hicks asked to be accommodated, she was told breastfeeding was not a condition that “warranted alternative duty” and told to either wear a larger size — which left dangerous gaps — or not wear a vest at all.
The jury awarded Hicks $374,000, but a magistrate judge reduced the award to $161,319.92 plus costs and attorneys’ fees, according to the opinion. On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit found “no reversible error on any issue” to warrant overruling the jury verdict. The panel also rejected the police department’s argument that Hicks did not mitigate her damages by seeking comparable work, as well as its challenge to the jury instructions.
This case highlights the importance of, among other things, properly analyzing employees’ requests for accommodations and ensuring that employee discipline is proper and consistent both before and after an employee takes protected leave.
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