California Teacher Sues School District Over Breastfeeding Rights

What happens when your employer makes breastfeeding more difficult? (Photo: Corbis)A former teacher and new mom in California is suing the Carmel Unified School District after being told to try to train her body not to lactate so she wouldn't have to pump breast milk during working hours.

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Sarah Ann Lewis Boyle was hired by the Carmelo School in August, 2010, to take care of kids age six months to four years old in their Child Development Center. In September 2011, after the birth of her first child, she met with her supervisor to talk about her return from maternity leave. Her doctor wanted her to breastfeed her infant son, she said, and she would need 15 to 20 minutes each day between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. to pump breast milk.

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The request was well within the guidelines of California law, which states: "Every employer… shall provide a reasonable amount of break time to accommodate an employee desiring to express breast milk for the employee's infant child." But, according to a copy of the lawsuit obtained by Yahoo! Shine, instead of agreeing to Boyle's request, her supervisor, Laura Schimmel-Dunn, allegedly told Boyle to start "training my breasts not to make milk between the hours of 7 a.m. and 1 p.m., so that she would not need to pump."

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When she asked how she should try to do that, the lawsuit says she was told to "push the feedings further and further apart" so that her newborn son "would not desire feedings during that time period." The new mom felt that doing so would be force her to "starve Sawyer slightly." A few months later, Boyle was told that she was "not a good fit" for the school and her contract was not renewed.

"We believe that this whole thing is not only a violation of California labor laws, but that they retaliated against her and refused to renew her contract because of that," Boyle's lawyer, Kenneth J. Kroopf, told Yahoo! Shine in an interview on Friday.

After Boyle talked to her lactation consultant and her child's pediatrician, who wrote a letter to the school requesting that they allow her to pump breast milk, the senior director of human resources told Boyle that she had "misunderstood" and that they would find a way make sure she could pump "2 to 3 days" a week.

But when Boyle returned to work on October 3, no accommodations had been made, the lawsuit says. Unable to take a break and without a private place in which to express milk, the new mom ended up having to pump while sitting in a small bathroom attached to the classroom, the Dutch door half open so she could keep an eye on the kids in her care.

The set-up made her anxious and uncomfortable, Kroopf told Yahoo! Shine. "She had difficulty doing that."

Still, she kept trying. In February, after her first-ever negative evaluation, she was asked to resign. She refused.

"Suddenly, she gets a letter from the board saying 'We don't think you're a good fit' and they're not going to renew her contract," Kroopf said.

By then, her milk supply had dwindled and she had to wean her infant son.

"She gave it up," Kroopf said. "She just couldn't do it at the school. The anxiety made it very difficult for her and she just couldn't keep trying to pump."

On May 5, the Monterey County Herald reported, Boyle filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; she received a "right to sue" letter on Oct. 25.

Kroopf wrote to the Carmelo School asking for a chance to talk before filing the lawsuit on October 30, but the school turned him down, he said.

"They replied that they would contradict everything my client said," Kroopf told Yahoo! Shine. "All they told us when the board met [in early November] is that they would vigorously defend this lawsuit."

The school district did not respond to a request for comment from Yahoo! Shine, but said in a statement to KION-TV that "The Carmel Unified School District has a longstanding practice of providing lactation accommodations for employees, of which the district is very proud."

"Over the years, dozens of employees have requested and been granted these accommodations," the statement read. "To our knowledge, no one has ever been denied. Out of respect for the former employee's privacy and due process rights, the district will not discuss any of the reasons for letting her go as an employee."

On advice of counsel, Boyle has chosen to let the lawsuit speak for her, her lawyer told Yahoo! Shine. She is suing for wrongful termination, failure to accommodate, discrimination, intentionally inflicting emotional distress, among other charges. She is seeking unspecified damages.

"She's not out for money. That wasn't the purpose of this," Kroopf said. "She loved her job. She really wanted to continue working for them, wanted her contract to be renewed."

"I thought, from a male perspective, that what they're saying is completely wrong," he added. "I was offended by what they did."