WASHINGTON – The Justice Department sued Niagara County on Monday, alleging that its Sheriff’s Office discriminated against a pregnant corrections officer in 2007 by requiring her to take an unwanted leave of absence rather than transferring her to a position with no contact with inmates.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Buffalo, alleges that the county discriminated against Corrections Officer Carisa L. Boddecker. Court papers filed in the case accuse county officials of violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which, as amended, prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, including pregnancy.
“Employers must provide pregnant women with the same accommodations they provide to employees who are not pregnant but who are similarly able or unable to work,” said Jocelyn Samuels, principal deputy assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division.
According to the Justice Department’s court filing, that’s not what happened in Boddecker’s case.
When Boddecker told supervisors in September 2007 that she was pregnant, the Sheriff’s Office had a policy that supervisors at Niagara County Jail must advise a pregnant corrections officer “that she has the option to be assigned to a duty station that entails no immediate contact with the inmate population.”
As a result, upon request, Boddecker was transferred to a position in the jail’s Central Control unit, but not for long.
According to the lawsuit, Administrative Capt. Daniel M. Engert told Boddecker in early October that because the jail had a shortage of female corrections officers, she might have to work in contact with inmates and might also have to work overtime.
Boddecker’s doctor responded with a note saying that the pregnant woman should not be working with inmates and that she could not work extra hours.
Nevertheless, later that month, Engert informed corrections officers that the Sheriff’s Office had retroactively changed its policy so that pregnant staffers would be moved out of contact with prisoners only “if such post is available.”
Then, early in November, Engert sent Boddecker an email saying the Sheriff’s Office no longer had a position where she could be guaranteed to be out of contact with inmates. A few days later, he sent her another email, saying she had been put on leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act – a law intended to allow workers to take voluntary leave to deal with family situations.
That happened, the lawsuit says, even though other Niagara County corrections officers with other medical conditions had been transferred at their request to be removed from contact with inmates.
Boddecker got her job back only after filing a complaint to the local office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which referred the matter to the Department of Justice.
The lawsuit seeks back pay, restored leave and compensatory damages for Boddecker, as well as a new county policy to clarify that pregnant corrections officers can work apart from inmates. Also, the Justice Department wants a new county policy for handling complaints of sex discrimination and additional training on the issue for county employees to prevent such cases from occurring in the future.
“Women should not have to choose between their pregnancies and their jobs, and the Civil Rights Division will continue to vigorously enforce the right of pregnant employees to be free of discrimination in the workplace,” Samuels said.