Unlike an Alabama district court, an appeals court couldn’t see the difference between injured workers who couldn’t lift more than 20 pounds and a pregnant worker who couldn’t lift 50, since none of them could meet the requirement to lift 100 pounds.
So it told the district court to take up the case again and determine whether the company’s reasons for treating the pregnant worker differently were legitimate based on the facts of the case or if they were a pretext for discriminating against her in violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.
Forced to take unpaid leave while pregnant
Rural/Metro Corp., an emergency medical and fire services provider, told a pregnant emergency medical tech she was not eligible for light duty, after her doctor recommended she lift no more than 50 pounds for the duration of her pregnancy. The employer told her she’d instead have to take unpaid leave.
The EMT, Michelle Durham, pointed out that other EMTs who’d been injured while working had been moved to light duty to accommodate even more restrictive lifting limits. When the company held firm on denying her light duty, and then stopped scheduling her for work, she sued for discrimination under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.
Rural/Metro Corp. asked for a summary dismissal, pointing to its light-duty policy, which it says states that only workers injured on the job were eligible for light duty, and another policy that allowed it to accommodate employees with disabilities on a case-by-case basis.
District court didn’t see pregnancy discrimination
A district court agreed that the circumstances of the other workers were different, and Durham had not established pregnancy discrimination.
It granted Rural’s motion and the ACLU of Alabama and, in November 2018, Birmingham attorney Heather Leonard appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit on behalf of Durham.
In returning the case to the district court, the appellate judges said “neither a non-pregnant EMT who is limited to lifting 10 or 20 pounds nor a pregnant EMT who is restricted to lifting 50 pounds or less can lift the required 100 pounds to serve as an EMT.”
The court found Rural/Metro’s policy might violate the Pregnancy Discrimination Act because the company could not justify the preferential treatment it afforded other EMTs.
Because none of the workers would meet the lifting requirement, the court said, “they are the same in their ‘inability to work’ as an EMT.”
While the case has not been decided as of May 2020, it provides a clear reminder to employers to make sure they follow the Pregnancy Discrimination Act’s mandate that they must accommodate pregnant workers on the same terms as other employees.