A Pell City EMT sued her former employer for pregnancy discrimination after she says the company would not make accommodations for her that it has made for non-pregnant employees.
"All she really wanted to do was go back to work," said Heather Leonard, a Birmingham-based attorney representing the former EMT, Kimberlie Michelle Durham of Marshall County. "She needed and wanted to work, and they wouldn't allow her that opportunity."
Durham filed the suit against Rural/Metro Corporation in 2016, claiming the Arizona-based company violated the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act when it refused to grant her request for light duty after her doctor told her it was unsafe for her to lift more than 50 pounds while pregnant.
The American Civil Liberties Union joined Durham's case in November, after a district judge in Birmingham dismissed the case. The case is now in federal appeals court.
Attorneys for Rural/Metro have not responded to requests for comment. The company has denied any wrongdoing.
Alabama is an outlier when it comes to workplace protections. It's one of the few states that doesn't have workplace anti-discrimination laws in place to bolster federal laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Americans with Disabilities Act.
And yet, Durham is now the second Alabama woman whose pregnancy discrimination case could help reframe federal law around how employers must accommodate pregnant workers.
"We have to get the message to employers that pregnancy is a normal part of a woman's life and a normal part of the workplace," said Gillian Thomas, co-counsel on the Durham case and senior staff attorney at the ACLU women's rights project. "If everyone cooperates and tries to find a solution, it can be done."
According to the lawsuit, Durham said that shortly after she learned she was pregnant in September 2015, she was told by her nurse practitioner that she should not lift more than 50 pounds. As an EMT, lifting people onto stretchers was part of her job.
She said she asked her supervisor for temporary reassignment to dispatch or another light-duty position, accommodations she said Rural/Metro had made for other employees. But the company maintained it only offered modified duty assignment for employees who had lifting restrictions as the result of a worker's compensation injury.
Durham wasn't eligible for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act because she had only been working at Rural/Metro for less than a year.
She said the company told her the only option was to take unpaid leave for up to 90 days, during which she wouldn't be allowed to take another job. If she didn't return by the date the company chose, she would forfeit her employment, according to the suit.
Durham is appealing her case to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
That's the court that ruled in favor of a Tuscaloosa police officer in 2017 in a case involving the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. The former police officer, Stephanie Hicks, successfully argued that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act obligates employers to accommodate breastfeeding workers.
Durham's case could have a similarly lasting impact on pregnancy discrimination in the South and beyond, said Elizabeth Gedmark, senior staff attorney and director of the Southern office of A Better Balance: The Work & Family Legal Center.
"The 11th Circuit is very influential," said Gedmark. "Not only will this impact cases in that circuit, but could have influence throughout the whole country."
A Better Balance is one of 20 workers' and women's rights advocacy organizations that jointly filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Durham case.
"This (discrimination) is happening across the country, and especially in states like Alabama where there's not a clear pregnant worker fairness law," she said.
Thomas, the ACLU attorney, said her office frequently sees pregnancy discrimination cases filed by women in caregiver jobs—nurses, EMTs—and in male-dominated fields, such as law enforcement or prison guard work.
The Supreme Court addressed the scope of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 2015, saying that employers must provide the same accommodations to pregnant employees that they provide to non-pregnant employees unless they can justify the difference in treatment.
Thomas said Rural/Metro had a "well-established" program of reassigning or creating positions for people who'd been injured on the job, and said pregnant workers should be afforded the same benefit.
"All of us who litigate these issues hoped (the Supreme Court decision) would usher in a new era of employers granting these accommodations more often than not," said Thomas. "As this case shows, there are plenty of employers that just don't get it."