Idaho Home Depot worker lost Round 1 in breastfeeding suit. Here’s how it just ended.
John Sowell, Idaho Statesman
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Home Depot and a former assistant manager at the home improvement chain’s Nampa store have settled claims the store failed to provide the manager unpaid breaks to pump breast milk for her baby.
The Idaho Statesman reports the settlement came after lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union and The Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law sought to intervene on Randi Allred’s behalf.
The two groups asked to submit “friend of the court” briefs after Allred, of Meridian, filed a motion asking U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill to reconsider his June 28 ruling dismissing the case.
While Winmill found “there is sufficient direct evidence to conclude that discrimination occurred,” he also said that Home Depot “did everything in its power to convince Allred to stay,” and rejecting Home Depot’s request for dismissal would, in effect, strip employers of the ability and opportunity to remedy workplace misconduct.”
Winmill ruled the evidence was insufficient to present the case to a jury, and he ordered Allred to pay $3,842 in fees and costs to Home Depot’s attorneys.
EVIDENCE OF PREGNANCY DISCRIMINATION ACT VIOLATION
Lawyers for the ACLU and The Center for WorkLife Law pointed to a 2017 Alabama case where the Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a jury’s finding that the Tuscaloosa Police Department “constructively discharged” police Officer Stephanie Hicks when it refused to transfer her to a light duty position that did not require her to wear a protective vest.
Constructive discharge occurs when an employer makes working conditions so unbearable that an employee believes the only option is to quit.
Hicks argued wearing the vest would have interfered with her ability to breastfeed.
A federal jury awarded Hicks $374,000 in damages. The appeals court upheld the verdict and affirmed that breastfeeding is a medical condition related to pregnancy and is protected by the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act.
“We find that a plain reading of the PDA covers discrimination against breastfeeding mothers,” the three-judge appeals panel wrote. “This holding is consistent with the purpose of PDA and will help guarantee women the right to be free from discrimination in the workplace based on gender-specific physiological occurrences.”
Before the Oct. 1 settlement was reached, Winmill agreed to accept the friend of the court submission, “because the information and arguments contained therein are useful to the court in determination of [the] plaintiff’s motion for reconsideration.”
SETTLEMENT REACHED AFTER FILINGS FROM ACLU, WORKLIFE LAW CENTER
The settlement came three days before the deadline for Home Depot to submit its response to the briefs for reconsideration filed by Allred and the ACLU and The Center for WorkLife Law.
Shelly Cozakos, a Boise attorney who represented Allred, said she could not comment. Settlement agreements often contain a confidentiality clause, which prevents parties and their attorneys from talking about the settlement.
A Home Depot spokeswoman would not comment on the settlement, but spokeswoman Margaret Smith said in an email, “We support working mothers and fathers in many ways, including leave and breastfeeding policies that aim to give parents a smooth transition back to work.”
“One can never know, but I certainly hope that our brief had an effect,” Cynthia Thomas Calvert, an attorney for The Center for WorkLife Law, wrote in an email to the Idaho Statesman. “We have seen settlements in other cases once we have become involved or filed a brief.”
WASN’T GIVEN BREAKS TO PUMP BREAST MILK
Allred worked for Home Depot for four years in Meridian and Nampa. When her son was born in October 2016, she supervised the Nampa store’s lumber, hardware, plumbing and professional contractor departments.
Allred claimed that the store director, Josh Hazlett, refused repeated requests to allow her to collect milk for her son. The child was allergic to cow’s milk and soy, the main components of formula.
Upon her doctor’s recommendation, Allred sought accommodation from Home Depot during her pregnancy that she work no more than five days in a row or lift more than 20 pounds. Hazlett denied the request, saying it would not be fair to Allred’s peers.
Allred was allowed to go on family leave and to take an unpaid leave of absence until January 2017. When she returned to work, Allred sought additional work breaks to accommodate milk pumping.
Hazlett denied those requests, too. The judge found that Hazlett aimed derogatory comments toward Allred, including ones suggesting that Allred’s pumping breast milk was just her “diet plan to lose weight.”
DISCRIMINATION COMMON AGAINST BREASTFEEDING MOTHERS
Calvert said she was “fairly confident” Winmill would have ruled in Allred’s favor on the motion for reconsideration. Likewise, she believes Allred would have prevailed at trial.
“Judge Winmill obviously spent a lot of time reviewing the allegations in the case and that led him to conclude that discrimination had occurred,” she said. “But it appears that he misunderstood a key piece of evidence — he thought that Ms. Allred had said her breaks were sufficient, but, in fact, that was Home Depot’s characterization of her breaks, and that led him to conclude erroneously that she had not been constructively discharged.”
The problems faced by Allred are not uncommon, Calvert said: “Many employers do accommodate and some go well beyond what is required by law, but far too many women are still denied accommodations and discriminated or retaliated against for trying to pump at work.”