A family fitness center in Central Ohio recently settled a female patron’s claim that the center violated her right to breast-feed her baby in a public area of the center. After an adverse ruling in April 2007 from the Ohio Civil Rights Commission (“OCRC”), the center decided to settle the dispute, including payment of $5,000 and a change in its breast-feeding policy.

The Facts

A female patron attempted to breast-feed her baby in a public area of the center, where children and caregivers were present. The center manager told the patron that it was inappropriate for her to breast-feed in that area and the center’s policy required her to go to the women’s locker room to do so. The patron considered the center’s policy to be unreasonable. In her view, adults do not eat in bathrooms, so babies should not be forced to eat there. She filed a claim with the OCRC, asserting that she was discriminated against due to her sex in violation of Ohio law.

Ohio’s Breast-Feeding Law and Sex Discrimination

A mother’s right to breast-feed in a place of public accommodation is protected by Ohio law. Specifically, the law states:

A mother is entitled to breast-feed her baby in any location of a place of public accommodation wherein the mother otherwise is permitted.

A “place of public accommodation” is broadly defined to include hotels, restaurants, theaters, banks, and “any other place of public accommodation or amusement of which the accommodations, advantages, facilities, or privileges are available to the public.” If a place offers its facilities and accommodations to a substantial public on a nonsocial, sporadic, impersonal, and non-gratuitous basis, it constitutes a “place of public accommodation.”

Under Ohio law, if a person is denied “the full enjoyment of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of the place of public accommodation” for reasons not applicable to all persons regardless of sex, the place has engaged in sex discrimination. In 2005, the Ohio legislature adopted the breastfeeding law in response to a federal court’s ruling the prior year that a store’s policy of requiring female customers to breast-feed in the restroom or outside of the store did not constitute sex discrimination. With Ohio’s breast-feeding law in place, such a store, for example, would engage in sex discrimination if it denied a mother the right to breastfeed anywhere in the store the mother is allowed to be.

OCRC Ruling and Settlement

In April 2007, the OCRC issued a “probable cause” finding. The OCRC viewed the evidence sufficient to conclude that more likely than not, the center engaged in discrimination. This determination is the OCRC’s first ruling on a sex discrimination claim premised upon Ohio’s breastfeeding law.

Just recently, the fitness center entered into a settlement agreement with the female patron and the OCRC. While not admitting to any wrongdoing, the center agreed to pay the female patron and the Ohio Breastfeeding Coalition each $2,500. The center also agreed to change its policy so that a mother is permitted to breast-feed her baby in any location of the center wherein the mother otherwise is permitted. The center must notify all current members of its fitness centers about the policy change, train employees about the terms of the settlement agreement, and post the international breast-feeding symbol, shown here:

International breast-feeding symbol

Reminder for Employers

With its first ruling under its belt, the OCRC has set the stage to hear future discrimination claims of this sort. While Ohio’s breast-feeding law governs the relationship between a place of public accommodation (i.e., store, restaurant, bank) and individuals who are attempting to enjoy the accommodations or privileges of that place (i.e., customers, patrons), employers must nonetheless be mindful. If an employer has a place of public accommodation on its premises, the employer must permit breast-feeding in the public areas of its locations. If you are such an employer, we suggest you give the manager in charge of such a place of public accommodation a refresher on the rights of the breast-feeding patrons.