The American Civil Liberties Union is joining a federal court appeal on behalf of a former EMT who is suing for discrimination based on her pregnancy.
Kimberlie Michelle Durham, the former EMT, is appealing the dismissal of her federal pregnancy discrimination lawsuit against Rural/Metro Corporation, a national provider of emergency and fire services in underserved areas.
The ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project and the ACLU of Alabama are joining the suit being led by Birmingham attorney Heather Leonard in federal court.
The complaint alleges that the company refused to temporarily reassign Durham to a less strenuous job while she was pregnant. She claims Rural/Metro violated her rights under federal law because the company had a policy of providing temporary assignments for employees who are injured on the job, but refused to extend the policy to her, forcing her to take leave without pay for the next six months until her due date.
Eventually, she lost her job.
“I was so happy when I learned I was pregnant, and expected Rural/Metro to honor my doctor’s instruction to avoid heavy lifting,” said Durham. “After all, it’s the company’s business to help take care of people and keep them healthy. But even though there were plenty of jobs available that I could have done, like dispatch, the company wouldn’t budge. Starting a family cost me my job.”
Federal District Judge Annemarie Carney Axon ruled against Durham early last month, finding that Rural/Metro did not violate her rights under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.
“If an employee’s pregnancy prevents her from fulfilling the duties of her position, her employer is not obligated to treat her any differently than it would treat a nonpregnant employee who is in the same position,” wrote in her memorandum opinion.
Durham is now appealing her case to the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
“The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that policies like Rural/Metro’s violate the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act unless the company has a compelling reason for treating pregnant workers differently,” said Randall C. Marshall, Executive Director of the ACLU of Alabama. “The trial court here not only failed to apply that standard to Rural/Metro’s conduct, it found that federal law doesn’t protect against failures to accommodate pregnancy at all. Both conclusions are plainly wrong and should be reversed.”
Durham’s doctor directed her not to lift more than 50 pounds when she learned she was pregnant in September 2015. At that time, she had been working as an EMT for five months, which frequently required her to lift patients onto stretchers when responding to medical emergencies.
Durham’s attorneys argue the company routinely created temporary “light duty” work for employees with occupational injuries. Despite a number of positions as a dispatcher being open, Durham said the company refused to temporarily reassign her to one of those jobs.
“The Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed nearly 40 years ago to assure pregnancy didn’t push women off the job, but unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened to Ms. Durham,” said Gillian Thomas, Senior Staff Attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “Pregnant workers’ right to be treated on the same terms as their nonpregnant colleagues was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court as recently as 2015, but the trial judge just didn’t get it. We need the appeals court to reverse the lower court decision and make clear to that the law means what it says.”
The ACLU said it has participated in the Supreme Court case, Young v. United Parcel Service, as a “friend of the court,” and has successfully litigated several cases like Durham’s, including recovery of a jury verdict against a Suffolk County, New York police department that denied “light duty” to pregnant officers while providing such assignments to officers injured on the job in 2006.
It also settled complaints against two Connecticut police departments for similar violations, the first in 2013 and the second last month.
In Alabama, the ACLU secured a ruling from the 11th Circuit on behalf of Tuscaloosa police officer Stephanie Hicks. The ruling found that employers are not only required to accommodate workers during pregnancy, but also once they’ve returned to work and are breastfeeding, under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.