Angela Ames was on her first morning back from maternity leave and couldn’t gain access to the lactation room when her department head told her, “I think it’s best that you go home to be with your babies,” handing her a pen and paper and dictating the contents of a resignation letter.
Last week, a federal appeals panel comprised of three Republican-appointed men rejected Ames’ sex discrimination claims, concluding that she did not give former employer Nationwide Insurance an adequate opportunity to address her concerns. The ruling upholds a lower court ruling that Ames’ case should not even go before a jury.
“Nationwide’s several attempts to accommodate Ames show its intent to maintain an employment relationship with Ames, not force her to quit,” the panel concluded.
The attempts to “accommodate” her at the Des Moines, Iowa, office went like this. Ames appeared to work on her first day back and asked her department head, Karla Neel, where she could go to pump milk. Neal told her that was not her responsibility and that she should go to the company nurse, who told Ames that she was required to fill out paperwork that would take three days to process.
Ames told the nurse that she was lactating every three hours, and needed access to a room immediately (it had already been more than three hours since she last expressed milk). The nurse told Ames that she might be able to use a “wellness room” once it was no longer occupied, but that this room could expose her milk to germs.
While Ames was waiting for this room, she met with her direct supervisor, who told her that none of her work had been completed while she was on maternity leave and that she would be expected to complete all of it within two weeks — taking whatever overtime necessary — or she would face discipline.
After this meeting, Ames returned, exasperated, to Neel’s office to ask if there was anywhere for her to lactate. At this point, Ames had waited hours beyond the time she was scheduled to lactate, and was “visibly upset and in tears,” according to the appeals court opinion. Neel told her, “You know, I think it’s best that you go home to be with your babies,” handing her a pen and paper on which to write her resignation letter. When Ames responded that she didn’t know what to do, Neel told her to just write, according to Ames’ lawyer.
Ames sued alleging violations of both state and federal civil rights law, and her claims were supported by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But a trial judge sided with Nationwide before the case ever went to a jury, concluding that no reasonable person would have found her working condition intolerable, such that she would have no choice but to quit.
Arguing to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit panel, Ames’ lawyer Emily McCarty had this to say about the “reasonable person”:
Imagine your first day back to work after an extended break. You’re nervous and excited and maybe when you wake up you drank too much coffee and you arrive at work to meet with your boss and realize that you have to use the restroom — bad. You ask where the bathrooms are, and they tell you it’s not part of their job to make sure that you have a bathroom. You ask everyone you can think of. You go to security. They can’t help.
You find the company nurse and you find out that there’s a policy that says in order to have access to a bathroom you have to wait for 3 days while you get clearance. The nurse tells you there’s an outhouse out back, however, the door is broken so anyone of the opposite sex can walk in, plus someone is in there now getting sick so it probably won’t be clean or sanitary. But you can check back in 15 minutes if you want to try using it. Meanwhile, there’s nowhere at all you can go to the bathroom. With every moment that passes you are praying that you don’t lose control of your bladder and stain your trousers and humiliate yourself in front of everyone.
For those of you who have never lactated or been in an unanticipated situation in which someone is preventing you from nursing or pumping for hours it’s almost impossible to imagine what it was like for Angela Ames on the day she returned from maternity leave. […]
The reason it’s so important to understand what the physical condition of engorged breasts feels like is because without that knowledge, no one can possibly evaluate whether Angela Ames behaved reasonably in feeling she had no choice but to leave her job.
The factual events of that morning come against a backdrop of several prior months during which supervisors suggested Ames might have to cut her maternity leave short because the office was “too busy,” derided her for personal decisions about her pregnancy, and warned that taking additional unpaid leave after medical complications with her pregnancy might raise “red flags” down the road.