Montgomery, Ala. – The Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama has joined Birmingham attorney Heather Leonard in a federal court appeal on behalf of former Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) Kimberlie Michelle Durham. Durham is appealing the dismissal of her federal pregnancy discrimination claim against Rural/Metro Corporation, a nationwide provider of emergency medical and fire services in underserved areas. Her claims arise from the company’s refusal to temporarily reassign her to less strenuous job duties while she was pregnant. Durham alleges that Rural/Metro violated her rights under federal law because the company had a formal policy of providing such temporary reassignments to employees injured on the job, but refused to extend that policy to her. The company told Durham that her only option was to take leave without pay for the next six months until her due date.
“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.”
Durham’s case, Durham v. Rural Metro Corporation, No. 18-14687 (11th Circuit) appeals a decision issued early last month by a federal district judge in Birmingham, Alabama. “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,” explained 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 had been working as an EMT for Rural/Metro for five months when she learned she was pregnant in September 2015. Her doctor directed her not to lift more than 50 pounds, a frequent requirement of Durham’s job because of the need to lift patients on stretchers when responding to medical emergencies. Even though the company routinely created temporary “light duty” work for employees with occupational injuries, and even though several dispatch positions were vacant, the company refused to temporarily reassign Durham. Instead, Rural/Metro told Durham she would have to stay home without pay for the duration of her pregnancy.
“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 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, and settlements of its complaints against two Connecticut police departments for similar violations, the first in 2013 and the second just last month. In 2017, it helped secure a ruling from the Eleventh Circuit on behalf of Tuscaloosa police officer Stephanie Hicks that the the Pregnancy Discrimination Act obligates employers not only to accommodate workers during pregnancy, but also once they have returned to work and are breastfeeding.
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