Charter school settles lawsuit over breast-milk dispute

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By Deb Hurley Brobst

A lawsuit filed in August 2011 by a former teacher at Rocky Mountain Academy of Evergreen against the school, saying she was discriminated against because she wanted to express breast milk at work, was settled on Friday.

The suit, which was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of technology teacher Heather Burgbacher, tested the 2008 Colorado Nursing Mothers Act, which requires employers to provide reasonable break time and a quiet place other than a bathroom for employees to express breast milk.

According to the ACLU, the settlement includes monetary compensation, though a dollar amount has not been disclosed. RMAE also agreed to make policy changes to ensure that nursing employees have the time and space to express breast milk at work.

The ACLU calls the settlement a victory for nursing mothers and says it’s the first public settlement of a legal challenge brought under the law.

Burgbacher said she was pleased with the settlement and the requirement that RMAE will provide time and space for nursing moms.

However, RMAE says that even though it agreed to settle the case, the school strongly disagrees with the claims in the lawsuit.

“It’s unfortunate that the ACLU chose to target the Rocky Mountain Academy of Evergreen to boast the ‘first public settlement of a lawsuit regarding the Nursing Mothers Act,’ ” said Dan Cohen, RMAE’s executive director. “Especially in light of the fact that the plaintiff’s accusations were false, and that she was accommodated by the school in terms of time and space to express breast milk in accordance with the law, and with RMAE’s policies and procedures around this issue.”

Kelli Anderson, RMAE’s board treasurer, explained that the school agreed to settle the lawsuit because “continuing to battle this lawsuit would have taken more valuable time and resources away from the students and classrooms at the Rocky Mountain Academy of Evergreen, and this was not something we were willing to do. We have agreed to a settlement in order to put this situation behind us and to refocus our attention on what matters most — providing a high-quality public education to our students.”

Lawsuit allegations

In the lawsuit, Burgbacher claimed her contract in the 2011-12 school year was not renewed because she stood up for her right to express milk at work for her newborn baby. The case received both local and national media attention.

Burgbacher had been the school’s technology teacher for five years, teaching students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Burgbacher, like all RMAE teachers, had a yearly contract.

The technology position was redesigned and re-advertised, getting away from a classroom teacher position and more of a technology adviser to other teachers.

“(The change in the position) was completely unrelated to the fact that she was a nursing mother,” said Dina Walton, RMAE’s director of human resources. “The organizational restructure process and planning began approximately 18 months prior to the plaintiff’s non-renewal notification. ”

In the lawsuit, Burgbacher said she needed to be excused from class three times a week to express breast milk. She gave her students assignments that they could do at their desks and found a teacher with a free period to cover her class.

In November 2010, she alleged the school’s human resources manager told her the current arrangement was no longer acceptable, and she should consider supplementing her baby’s diet with infant formula.

In December 2010, the school and Burgbacher went through mandatory mediation to resolve the matter. The school and Burgbacher signed a memorandum of understanding to establish the accommodation for her breast-pumping needs.

In February 2011, Burgbacher was informed that her contract would not be renewed.

She alleged in the EEOC Charge of Discrimination that the issue for non-renewal was not because of her performance or qualifications but as a result of the “conflict” that stemmed from her pumping breast milk. She alleged she was told that because of the conflict, she was no longer a good fit for RMAE.

Contact Deb Hurley Brobst at deb@evergreenco.com or 303-350-1041. Check www.CanyonCourier.com for updates.