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New Mom’s Constructive Discharge Claim Fails

By W. Kevin Smith  4/17/2014
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An employee alleged that her employer discriminated against her because she was a new mother in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Iowa Civil Rights Act, but the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a ruling in favor of the company.

Plaintiff Angela Ames worked as a loss mitigation specialist for Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. Part of her job duties included prompt completion of assignments. Ames was aware of the importance of this duty.

While employed by Nationwide, Ames became pregnant. Ultimately, she was placed on bed rest. Ames discussed her need for bed rest with her immediate supervisor, Brian Brinks, and with the head of the loss mitigation department, Karla Neel. When she learned that Ames would be on bed rest, Neel allegedly rolled her eyes and stated that she never needed bed rest when she was pregnant. Brinks responded by making statements to others in the office suggesting that Ames would not be allowed to take maternity leave because of the volume of work in the loss mitigation department.

Ames was allowed to take leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and a temporary employee was trained in her place. While on leave, Ames received a call from Neel informing her that Nationwide had miscalculated the FMLA leave available to Ames, and that Ames was entitled to three weeks less than originally scheduled. Neel informed Ames that she could take extended leave to the original end date but that doing so would raise “red flags.” After some discussion, Ames’ leave was extended an additional week beyond her available FMLA leave.

Upon returning to work, Ames sought access to a lactation room. Ames discovered that she was required to apply for access to the Nationwide lactation room, a process that could take several days. In the interim, Ames was offered access to a “wellness” room.

While waiting to use a wellness room, Ames asked Brinks about the status of her work while she was on maternity leave. Brinks told Ames that her work had not been completed, that she was behind and must catch up, and that she would be required to work overtime to do so. Brinks informed Ames that she would be disciplined if she did not finish her work in a timely fashion.

Ames complained to Neel about her lack of immediate access to the lactation room, and again asked for her help in finding a place to express breast milk. Neel stated that she could not help. Ames became visibly upset, at which point Neel stated that Ames should “go home to be with her babies.” Neel then helped Ames write a resignation letter.

After resigning, Ames filed a lawsuit claiming gender and pregnancy discrimination. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Nationwide. The district court found that Ames had resigned her position and so could not show that she suffered an adverse employment action as required to prove discrimination.

The 8th Circuit affirmed the decision of the district court. In its decision, the appeals court examined Ames’ claims that she was constructively discharged by Nationwide. For a constructive discharge claim, the plaintiff must show that the employer created working conditions so unbearable that the employee felt compelled to quit. To prove her claims of constructive discharge, Ames relied on the statements of Neel and Brinks, the failure of Nationwide to provide her with assistance in the completion of her work while on leave, and the lack of immediate access to a lactation room.

The 8th Circuit determined that Nationwide offered Ames appropriate accommodations. She had access to a wellness room to lactate, and her application for access to a lactation room was fast-tracked by Nationwide. Regarding her work backlog, the court found that Nationwide has the same expectations of all employees, and so the requirement that Ames complete her work within a specific time frame was not poor treatment. Finally, the court determined that the comments made by Neel and Brinks could not have forced a reasonable person to quit their employment. As such, the court found summary judgment to be appropriate.

Ames v. Nationwide Mutual Ins. Co., 8th Cir., No. 12-3780 (March 13, 2014).

Professional Pointer: Absent a request for accommodation, employers have the right to expect employees to perform all work required of them, regardless of leave status.

W. Kevin Smith is an attorney with the firm of Smith & Smith Attorneys, the Worklaw® Network member firm in Louisville, Ky.  

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