The federal appeals court in Atlanta has upheld a $161,319 judgment against the Tuscaloosa Police Department, finding it should have made more accommodations for a breastfeeding officer on its force.
The ruling sets an important precedent in Georgia, Alabama and Florida, the states
under the jurisdiction of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The 11th Circuit became the second federal appeals court to ruled that employees who are breastfeeding are protected under Title VII, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in the workplace, the American Civil Liberties Union said. The ruling also said the city's refusal of accommodations for its breastfeeding employee, officer Stephanie Hicks, violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.
"The jury found that a reasonable person in Hicks' position would have felt compelled to resign," said the ruling, authored by Judge Charles Wilson. "We see no reason to overrule the jury."
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act was enacted so women would no longer have to to choose between having a family and continuing to work, said Galen Sherwin, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Women's Rights Project, which filed a legal brief asking the 11th Circuit to rule in Hicks' favor.
“The court’s ruling vindicates the rights of new mothers to be treated equally and with dignity on the job," she said.
Hicks transferred from the West Alabama Narcotics Task Force to the Tuscaloosa Police Department's patrol division shortly after she returned from pregnancy leave in late 2012. But her doctor said in a letter to the department that the ballistic vests Hicks would have to wear could cause her breast infections that could lead to an inability for Hicks to continue breastfeeding.
Hicks was then told by the department that she could either not wear a vest or wear a specially fitted vest. But to Hicks, wearing no vest was too dangerous and the specially fitted vests had such large gaping holes they were also ineffective. She resigned from the force that day and filed suit a year later.
In a statement, Hicks praised the 11th Circuit's decision.
“I loved my job as a police officer, but I was demeaned, demoted and discriminated against for choosing to be a mom, and then forced to choose between my job and breastfeeding,” she said. “I took a stand and fought back on behalf of all women so no other moms would be put in this situation.