Chicago Fire’s Nursing Mother Case Moves Forward

A lawsuit filed by a Chicago Fire Department paramedic will proceed after a US District Court judge ruled on the city’s motion to dismiss her allegations of pregnancy and gender discrimination.

Paramedic-In-Charge Sarah Spriesch filed suit last February in Cook County Circuit Court accusing the Chicago Fire Department of pregnancy discrimination under state and federal law, sex discrimination under state and federal law, and violation of the Nursing Mother’s Act.

The allegations stem from how officers treated Spriesch during her pregnancy, forcing her to take leave once they became away of her pregnancy; how the leave was categorized; how officers and instructors failed to allow her to express breast milk as required by the Nursing Mother’s Act; how the department failed to accommodate her requests related to expressing breast milk; and retaliating against her.

The complaint includes nine counts:

  1. Pregnancy Discrimination in Violation of the Illinois Human Rights Act (IHRA), 775 ILCS 5/2-102(I)
  2. Gender Discrimination in Violation of the IHRA, 775 ILCS 5/2-102(A)
  3. Failure to Provide Reasonable Accommodations for Pregnancy, Childbirth and Related Conditions in Violation of the IHRA, 775 ILCS 5/2-102(J)
  4. Retaliation in Violation of the IHRA, 775 ILCS 5/6-101(A)
  5. Sex (Pregnancy) Discrimination in Violation of Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (Disparate Treatment)
  6. Sex (Pregnancy) Discrimination in Violation of Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (Disparate Impact)
  7. Retaliation in Violation of Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a)
  8. Violation of the INMWA, 820 ILCS 260/1 et seq.
  9. Retaliation in Violation of the FLSA, 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3)

In March the city removed the case to federal court where it sought to have several of the counts dismissed.

Last week US District Court Judge Sara L. Ellis dismissed two of the counts, but left the remainder intact. Dismissed without prejudice are Spriesch’s claims related to how the City categorized her leave. Dismissed with prejudice are her state law pregnancy accommodation claims to the extent the city’s misconduct occurred prior to the effective date of an amendment that affirmatively required accommodations for nursing mothers. That date was January 1, 2015.

From Judge Ellis’ ruling:

  • After learning she was pregnant, fire paramedic Sarah Spriesch faced gender and pregnancy discrimination and retaliation at the City of Chicago’s fire department.
  • Spriesch was working for the City’s fire department as a fire paramedic when she learned she was pregnant, in June 2014. Soon after, she informed her supervisor that she was pregnant.
  • Spriesch’s supervisor asked her to go on leave immediately. The City required Spriesch to stay on leave throughout her pregnancy, requiring her to report monthly in person or by phone to confirm she was still pregnant. In contrast to other City fire employees who received temporary assignments, the City has a pattern and practice of placing pregnant employees on immediate leave.
  • Spriesch gave birth to her child on February 4, 2015. She returned to work two months later on April 8, 2015.
  • When she returned to work, the City designated her leave as off-duty injury leave, which can be used for up to twelve months every two years, rather than on-the-job injury leave, which can be used for up to twelve months as often as is needed.
  • The City has a pattern and practice of designating pregnancy leave as off-duty injury leave. Spriesch used 308 days of leave.
  • Spriesch was breastfeeding when she returned to work. Because she could not breastfeed her child at work, she pumped breastmilk for her child.
  • She informed City fire department officials that she was breastfeeding and needed to pump. No one told Spriesch about any accommodations for pumping.
  • When she needed to pass a re-training course to reenter the field, she was not allowed to pump and express breastmilk for hours. Despite experiencing pain and leaking that day at re-training, no one allowed her to pump for more than eight hours, and she faced threats if she were to leave early.
  • Eventually Spriesch was allowed leave to pump and express breastmilk, only to return and be told frequently over the rest of the day that she could not take breaks to pump.
  • When Spriesch requested a reasonable accommodation for pumping and expressing breastmilk, the instructor in re-training required her to perform two more re-training days and required her to stay later than other employees.
  • Spriesch asked for accommodations from the assistant deputy fire commissioner and human relations coordinator.
  • Although the assistant deputy acknowledged that Spriesch should have a private, non-bathroom space to pump, she expressed doubt about the existence of such a place and suggested that Spriesch use someplace like an ambulance, hospital, or quiet corner.
  • Because she went on leave, Spriesch lost her assignment to her regular ambulance.
  • Instead she began receiving her assignments from the relief pool, which sourced paramedics to temporary firehouse assignments.
  • Many firehouses in the relief pool did not have a private, nonbathroom space suitable for Spriesch to pump and express breastmilk.
  • Spriesch sues the City alleging violations of the Illinois Human Rights Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Illinois Nursing Mothers in the Workplace Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act.
  • The City moves to dismiss some of her claims, and the Court grants in part and denies in part the motion. Because Spriesch alleges enough facts to suggest a continuing violation, she can pursue claims related to the decision to place her on leave.
  • However, Spriesch fails to allege any injury from the classification of her leave as off-duty after she returned to work; thus, she fails to establish standing to pursue her claims arising from the classification.
  • Because the IHRA’s pregnancy accommodation amendment was not retroactive, she cannot pursue IHRA accommodation claims arising from acts committed before January 1,2015.
  • Spriesch sufficiently alleges that a City assignment policy caused her injury and may pursue her disparate impact claim.
  • Finally, the City fails to show that there is no private right of action under the INMWA and thus, Spriesch may pursue her claim pursuant to the INMWA .

The allegations contained in the complaint are even worse than Judge Ellis stated, including allegations that officers and instructors were seemingly unaware of the legal requirement that lactating mothers be given reasonable breaks to express breast milk, and cannot be retaliated against. Spriesch alleges she was threatened with charges for being AWOL if she took a break to express breast milk.

Here is the portion of the Nursing Mother’s Act that was incorporated into the Fair Labor Standards Act

29 USC §207(r) Reasonable break time for nursing mothers

(1) An employer shall provide—

(A) a reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for 1 year after the child’s birth each time such employee has need to express the milk; and

(B) a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk.

(2) An employer shall not be required to compensate an employee receiving reasonable break time under paragraph (1) for any work time spent for such purpose.

Here is a copy of Judge Ellis’ ruling: Spriesch v Chicago RULING

Here is a copy of the original complaint: Spriesch v Chicago Complaint

This is an area where fire officers – including company officers – desperately need training.  The stereotypical paramilitary approach to handling non-conformists can easily lead the department into an avoidable lawsuit with pregnant and nursing firefighters. Few firefighters have had the opportunity to watch a predecessor properly handle a case like this. Many departments are dealing with pregnant and nursing firefighters for the first time and find out the hard way that a heavy handed response by untrained officers is a recipe for disaster!

Pregnant and nursing firefighters represent one of those high-risk low-frequency areas where a clear policy – and training on the policy – is warranted. Remember the Gordon Graham – Lexipol motto: If it is predicable it is preventable.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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