Eighth Circuit Dismisses Claim By Nursing Mother
The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit recently found that the alleged mistreatment an employee received after returning from maternity leave did not amount to an adverse employment action under Title VII and the Iowa Civil Rights Act (“ICRA”). The Eighth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the employer on the employee’s pregnancy and sex discrimination claims. The Court held that denying immediate access to a lactation room did not constitute constructive discharge.
The employer, Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company (“Nationwide”), hired the employee, Angela Ames (“Ames”), as a loss-mitigation specialist in October of 2008. Ames gave birth to her second child on May 18, 2010. Approximately a month later, the head of the department, Neel, informed Ames that her FMLA maternity leave would expire on July 12, 2010, but agreed to extend Ames’ leave an extra week since Nationwide had made a mistake in the initial calculation.
Upon returning to work on July 19, 2010, Ames asked Neel about using a lactation room. Neel replied that it was not her responsibility to provide Ames with such a room. Ames then spoke with Nationwide’s nurse about using a lactation room. The nurse informed Ames that Nationwide had a lactation policy which allowed employees to gain badge access to the company’s lactation rooms after completing certain paperwork that required three days to process. As Ames was in pain, the nurse provided her access to Nationwide’s wellness room.
While waiting for the room to become available, Ames met with her immediate supervisor who told her that she had two weeks to complete the work she had not completed on leave, and that if she failed to do so, she would be disciplined. Shortly thereafter, Ames met with Neel a second time to request immediate access to the lactation room. Neel responded again that it was not her responsibility to provide her with such a room. As Ames was visibly upset and in tears, Neel told Ames that “I think it’s best that you go home and be with your babies.” Neel then dictated what Ames should say in her resignation letter.
Ames appealed. She alleged that the unavailability of a lactation room, her urgent need to express milk, and Nationwide’s unreasonable expectation about her work production forced her to resign from her position, which amounted to constructive discharge. The Eighth Circuit noted that to establish constructive discharge, an employee must show that “the employer deliberately created intolerable working conditions with the intention of forcing her to quit,” and “the employee must give her employer a reasonable opportunity to resolve a problem before quitting.”
The Court held that Ames failed to prove either prong. Nationwide made several attempts to accommodate Ames by granting her an extra week of maternity leave and providing her access to a wellness room in lieu of Nationwide’s lactation room. The Court also found that the timely completion of work is central to the position of a loss-mitigation specialist. Ames was only denied immediate access to the lactation room, which Ames could have obtained if she had completed the necessary paperwork provided by Nationwide prior to her return from maternity leave. The Eighth Circuit reasoned that these attempts to accommodate Ames demonstrated Nationwide’s intent to maintain an employment relationship with her.
Furthermore, the Court noted that Ames failed to give Nationwide a reasonable opportunity to address the alleged problems. She resigned on the same day she first brought any issues to Nationwide’s attention. She also failed to avail herself of other channels of communication to resolve problems as set forth in Nationwide’s policies. Accordingly, the Eighth Circuit concluded that Ames failed to prove constructive discharge.
Ames v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co. serves as a good refresher on constructive discharge claims in the Eighth Circuit. Actions showing that an employer is trying to work with an employee to resolve issues can refute a claim that the employer intends to force the employee to quit. Employers also should have effective avenues and policies in place through which employees can seek to address any problems. If an employee fails to do so before quitting, the employee will be hard-pressed to prove constructive discharge.
Finally, note that the Affordable Care Act, which had not been enacted at the time Ames returned to work, now requires that employers provide a lactation room free from intrusion for mothers returning to work.