Breast pump. Photo: Pilin_Petunyia

A Delaware federal judge has ordered a new trial in the case of a woman who was awarded $1.5 million in punitive damages for claims that she had been demoted for using a breast pump at work.

U.S. District Judge Colm F. Connolly of the District of Delaware blamed attorneys for plaintiff Autumn Lampkins for conflating separate claims of disparate treatment and hostile work environment in a way that “undoubtedly confused the jury.” Attorneys for defendant Mitra QSR KNE, which operates Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants in Delaware, had contributed to the confusion by largely going along with the gambit until it was too late, he said.

The result, Connolly ruled, was an unreasonable finding in February by a Wilmington jury, which ruled in favor of Lampkins on all six counts of her discrimination suit and awarded her $1.5 million in punitive damages, plus another $25,000 in compensatory damages.

“Having concluded that the jury’s findings in favor of Lampkins’ hostile work environment claims were unreasonable and should be overturned, I believe that it would be a miscarriage of justice to allow the jury’s disparate treatment findings to stand, as I think the jury was confused by the various and conflated theories of liability presented both explicitly and implicitly by Lampkins at trial,” Connolly wrote in a 38-page memorandum opinion.

According to the opinion, Lampkins had recently given birth when she was hired as an assistant manager making $10.50 per hour at a dual brand KFC and Taco Bell restaurant in Camden.

Lampkins cited 14 instances of ”severe or pervasive discriminatory harassment” she allegedly suffered because she had been lactating, including management complaints and two separate instances of male employees walking in on her while she was pumping in an office. In one instance, she said, a male worker “peeped” into the room and made “squeezing hand gestures” in a joke to other staff members.

Employees complained about frequent breaks Lampkins took for pumping, and some even threatened to quit, court papers said. Lampkins was demoted to shift manager at a Dover location and her pay was cut from $10.50 to $10 per hour.

But Connolly ruled Tuesday that all of those instances, viewed in their totality, could not sustain the jury’s finding that she had been subjected to a hostile work environment. In his opinion, Connolly said that none of the cited behavior involved derogatory statements or were threatening, hostile or abusive in nature.

“Viewed in the light most favorable to Lampkins, the circumstances identified by Lampkins establish that she had an unpleasant relationship with her coworkers, and that her coworkers resented her for taking so many breaks to pump,” Connolly wrote.

At trial, Connolly said, Lampkins’ Jacobs & Crumplar attorneys placed too much emphasis on the breast-pumping accommodations available there, making it the dispositive issue for the jury. However, that Title VII, which Lampkins cited as the basis for her hostile work environment claims, was “not an accommodations statute,” and could not be used to reach a remedy, he said.

Attorneys for both sides did not return calls Tuesday afternoon seeking comment on the ruling.

Lampkins is represented by Patrick C. Gallagher and Raeann Warner of Jacobs & Crumplar in Wilmington.

Mitra is represented by Jo Bennett and Samantha Banks of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis in Philadelphia and Richard A. Barkasy and Daniel M. Pereira from the firm’s Wilmington office.

The case is captioned Lampkins v. Mitra.