Be Sure to Follow Company Policies Before Suing for Pregnancy Discrimination

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Be Sure to Follow Company Policies Before Suing for Pregnancy Discrimination

If you feel you have been subject to pregnancy discrimination at your workplace, you must be sure you have taken advantage of all your employer's procedures for providing an accommodation, especially if you quit your job and then sue.

Angela Ames began working for Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company as a loss-mitigation specialist in October 2008. Her job required timely completion of her work, which was a high priority for the department as a whole. Ames gave birth prematurely on May 18, 2010. She went back to work July 19, when her son was two months old and breastfeeding every three hours.

The company nurse told Ames about Nationwide's lactation policy, which requires a badge to gain access to a lactation room. To get a badge, she had to fill out paperwork that takes three days to process. Although the policy is available on Nationwide's intranet and is covered during the company's maternity meetings, this was the first time Ames had heard of it. When Ames said she needed to express milk immediately, the nurse suggested she use the wellness room but warned her that breast milk might be exposed to germs there. The wellness room was occupied, so Ames met with her supervisor about her work while she waited.

He informed her that none of her work had been completed while she was on leave and she had two weeks to get it done. She was told she'd have to work overtime to catch up, and if she didn't, she'd be disciplined.

Ames again went to the head of her department to ask for assistance with finding a place to express milk, but she said she couldn't help. Ames then became tearful, and her supervisor suggested she go home to be with her babies. She then allegedly told Ames what to write in her letter of resignation. Ames sued Nationwide, claiming sex and pregnancy discrimination. She alleged that the unavailability of a lactation room, her urgent need to express milk, and the company's unrealistic expectations about her work forced her to resign. Nationwide asked the court to dismiss her claims, arguing that even if everything she said was true, she wasn't entitled to recover damages.

Both a lower court and U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the employer. Why? She didn't follow company procedures! Nationwide has a policy that addresses how to obtain access to its lactation rooms, and it expects new mothers to read up on it. The court ruled that Ames couldn't complain about her treatment when all nursing mothers were subject to the same policy. Nationwide also has a policy that urges employees who believe the company isn't following the law (on any subject) to bring their complaints forward. Ames' failure to do that precluded her claim that she was forced to resign. The court also noted that Nationwide's compliance statement provides that if an employee has reason to believe the company isn't in compliance with the law, she can immediately contact the local HR professional, the office of ethics, or the office of associate relations to report the issue. Because Ames didn't go back to her supervisor or contact HR before resigning, the court found that she acted unreasonably and didn't give Nationwide an opportunity to correct the problem.

The takeaway? If you are expecting, be sure to familiarize yourself with your company's policies and procedures regarding pregnancy and lactation. Should you have a complaint regarding pregnancy discrimination, try to resolve it by using company procedures and keep a record of all your encounters with supervisors and HR. You will probably not succeed in proving pregnancy discrimination if you resign before you have exhausted all other possible remedies.

If you work in New York and you have experienced pregnancy discrimination in your workplace, contact the lawyers at Schwartz and Perry LLP.

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