A former Falmouth Elementary School teacher is suing the school department over allegations that she was discriminated against and fired for taking breaks to pump breast milk after she returned from maternity leave.

In a lawsuit filed May 10 in U.S. District Court, Shana Swenson of Portland alleges she was unlawfully terminated from her job as an elementary school teacher after enduring months of discrimination from coworkers over her need to take three breaks a day to either pump milk or breastfeed her son.

The lawsuit says Falmouth schools violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the Maine Human Rights Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the Family and Medical Leave Act.

“Ms. Swenson was surprised and hurt by the treatment that she was subjected to during her employment. We look forward to the discovery process including depositions and document exchanges to vindicate our client’s rights,” Adam Lease, a partner with Karpf, Karpf and Cerutti of Bensalem, Pennsylvania, said in a statement Friday.

Melissa Hewey, an attorney from Drummond Woodsum who represents Falmouth Public Schools, said the school department denies all the allegations made by Swenson in her complaint. Hewey said Falmouth schools are “really ahead of the curve on supporting” employees with families by providing on-site daycare, extended parental leave and paid time for pumping or breastfeeding.

“It’s disappointing she would make these claims after taking advantage of very generous benefits offered to her,” Hewey said.

The federal Fair Labor Standards Act requires employers to provide a nursing mother reasonable break time to express milk each time she needs to do so for one year after the child’s birth. The act also requires employers to provide a place other than a bathroom for the nursing mother to use, but does not require the employer to compensate the employee for work time used for expressing milk.

How often a new mother needs to take a break from work to nurse or to express milk can depend on the baby, but three times a day would not be unusual, according to the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee, a nonprofit that works with governmental agencies and the health care industry.

“A breastfeeding mother must pump her milk as often as the baby usually eats,” the organization’s website states. “During the early months of your baby’s life, you will probably need to pump your milk every 2-3 hours during the workday.”

Swenson was employed by Falmouth Schools for three years and worked as a Response to Intervention teacher, helping students in third through fifth grade who struggled with reading and math. She went on maternity leave in January 2017 and returned to work in August. Before she returned to work, Swenson told school Principal Gloria Noyes that she would need to take three breaks during the day to pump milk or breastfeed her son, who was being cared for at a day care program at the school, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges that shortly after Swenson returned to work, Noyes asked her if she could reduce the number of times she needed to express milk during the work day from three to two, and to take those breaks during her lunch and planning time.

Swenson told Noyes that she needed to take three breaks to pump or nurse to properly feed her child and avoid health complications related to breastfeeding, including clogged ducts and mastitis, according to the lawsuit.

Not long after Swenson returned from maternity leave and began taking nursing breaks, she was “subjected to extreme animosity and hostility by some of the educational technicians she worked with regarding her choice to breastfeed and/or her need to take at least three breaks throughout the work day in order to express her milk,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit says Swenson broke down in tears and had stress-related physical symptoms due to the hostile work environment created by coworkers who repeatedly commented on her decision to breastfeed. Two months after returning from maternity leave, Swenson received her first negative evaluation during her three years at the school, according to the lawsuit.

In May 2018, Swenson was notified that her contract with the school department would not be renewed.

Hewey denies Falmouth schools improperly fired Swenson.

“She was a probationary teacher who was not given a continuing contract because her performance was not up to the standards Falmouth expects of its continuing contract teachers,” she said.

The lawsuit asks the court to order Falmouth Public Schools to promulgate an effective policy to stop similar discrimination, compensate Swenson for the pay and benefits she would have received, and award damages and legal fees.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Maine Human Rights Commission issued right-to-sue letters at Swenson’s request after she withdrew the complaint she had filed before a determination was made.

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