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Pregnant EMT let go after being denied desk job can pursue PDA claim

By Nicole D. Prysby, J.D.

The employee was denied a position where she would not have to do heavy lifting and was told she was being “let go” but could return after her pregnancy leave.

Given evidence that a pregnant EMT was terminated and did not take leave voluntarily, a federal district court in Illinois permitted her pregnancy discrimination claim to go forward. The employee requested she be moved to an office job, or a shift where she would not need to do heavy lifting. The employer denied her request and told her she was being “let go,” but could return after she had the baby. The employer contended that the employee was not fired; however, whether she was fired or forced to take leave makes no difference as both are prohibited under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), the court noted. It also rejected the employer’s argument that the employee could not show causation because it displayed no animosity towards her, and had even congratulated her on her pregnancy. Not every claim of discrimination requires animosity, the court explained, denying the employer’s motion for summary judgment (Bobak v. Bright Star Ambulance, Inc., February 12, 2019, Ellis, S.).

Shift change denied. The employee worked as a 24-hour shift EMT with additional supervisory and marketing duties. She informed the employer in January 2016 that she was pregnant and planned to work until her due date in June. During one of her February shifts, she encountered a 600-pound patient, after which the employee asked her supervisor if she could move to a full-time office position for the remainder of her pregnancy, or work day shifts instead (day-shift workers were assigned predetermined patients, so they knew in advance which patients they would be assisting.).

The supervisor did not bring up the employee’s request with the company owner until March, when the employee again requested an assignment change. The owner denied the change but the supervisor did not immediately tell the employee. In early April, the supervisor told the employee that she was being let go because there was no full-time office position available. But she understood that she could come back to work after she had the baby. The employee sued for pregnancy discrimination.

PDA claim survives. The parties disputed whether the employer terminated the employee, forced her to take maternity leave, or whether the employee took maternity leave willingly or quit of her own accord. The court found that a reasonable jury could conclude that the employer terminated the employee. She was told she was being let go, and the supervisor also stated that he had attempted to obtain a severance package for her. The court rejected the employer’s argument that the employee was not terminated because she knew she could come back to work after she had her baby. Whether the employee was fired or forced to take leave makes no difference as both are prohibited under the PDA. Moreover, the employee was not required to specify in her complaint whether her termination was permanent or temporary.

Shift request was not a voluntary quit. The court also rejected the employer’s claim that the employee had refused to work “required” 24-hour shifts, which was tantamount to quitting. There was nothing in the EMT job descriptions requiring 24-shift work as an essential function. In fact, job listings for the position boasted flexible work hours.

No animosity required. The employer also claimed that the employee could not show causation, as it displayed no animosity towards her and even congratulated her on her pregnancy. The court rejected that argument, noting that not every claim of discrimination requires animosity.

Because a reasonable jury could conclude that the employee was terminated because of her pregnancy, the court denied the employer’s motion for summary judgment.