Court decides breast feeding employee cannot sue insurer
IOWA CITY – Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. did not discriminate against an employee who claims she was denied a room to pump breast milk and pressured to resign on her first day back from maternity leave, a federal appeals court has ruled.
Angela Ames, a former loss-mitigation specialist in Nationwide’s Des Moines office, did not meet the legal burden of showing she was treated so badly that any reasonable person would have resigned, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday. The decision means Ames won’t get a trial on her claims of gender and pregnancy discrimination.
Ames claimed that on the morning she returned from a two-month maternity leave in July 2010, the company refused to let her use its lactation rooms because its policy required mothers to complete paperwork seeking security access and wait three days for processing. She had been unaware of that requirement. A company nurse suggested she use a wellness room that was occupied at the time, but also cautioned that doing so might expose her milk to germs.
Ames said she was in pain while waiting for that room to be vacated, when her supervisor informed her that she would be expected to work overtime to catch up on her work or face disciplinary action. Ames then went to her department head, Karla Neel, to see if she could find her a place to lactate, but was told that was not Neel’s responsibility.
Neel handed Ames a piece of paper and pen and told her to write her resignation, saying, “I think it’s best that you go home to be with your babies,” Ames claimed. Ames had also taken a two-month maternity leave after giving birth to her first child in 2009.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the lawsuit be reinstated after it was dismissed in 2012 by U.S. District Judge Robert Pratt.
The remark that Ames should “go home to be with your babies” was evidence of discrimination because it invoked stereotypes about the role of women, commission lawyers wrote.
They also said jurors could find that a reasonable employee would quit as a result of such treatment, noting that Ames had gone through a difficult pregnancy in which her child was born prematurely and was in pain because she needed to express milk.
But an appeals panel – made up of Judges Roger Wollman, Steven Colloton and Raymond Gruender – disagreed that Ames faced discrimination.
“Rather than intentionally rendering Ames’s work conditions intolerable, the record shows that Nationwide sought to accommodate Ames’s needs,” Wollman wrote.
Neel’s comment likely wasn’t enough to prove that she intended to force Ames out, but even if it was, the employee didn’t give Nationwide a reasonable opportunity to fix the conditions that she claimed made her workplace intolerable, Wollman wrote.
Ames was denied access to a lactation room because she hadn’t completed the necessary paperwork, a three-day waiting process that was the same for all nursing mothers, he added. While pumping in the wellness room “may not have been immediately available or ideal,” Ames had an obligation not to jump to the conclusion that her only option was to resign, he wrote.
One of Ames’ attorneys, Paige Fiedler, said Monday that she was disappointed in the ruling and planned to ask for a rehearing.
“The opinion contains all sorts of conclusions that I don’t think are possible if it would have looked at the facts in the light most favorable to Angela,” she said.
Brandi Martin, a spokeswoman for Columbus, Ohio-based Nationwide, said the company agreed with the decision and “is fully committed to supporting the health and wellness needs of all of our associates, including providing lactation space when needed.”
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