A Maryland firefighter-paramedic who was terminated in 2011 following her use of sick leave for her pregnancy has filed suit alleging pregnancy and gender discrimination under state and federal law.
Robin Lancaster filed suit against the Sykesville-Freedom District Fire Department in Carroll County Circuit Court last month. The case was removed to federal court earlier this week at the request of the department.
Lancaster was terminated in November 2011, one month after giving birth to her son. However, her problems began about seven months earlier when she began using sick leave on account of morning sickness and pregnancy-related medical appointments. A fire department board member, Bill Luebberman, cautioned her about her sick leave usage suggesting she may be written up if it continued.
In May of 2011, Lancaster was advised not to lift more than 40 pounds. When she notified Luebberman he informing her via email:
If you have a doctor's note saying that you can not [sic] function as a Paramedic, then it's now time for you to go on sick leave. When sick leave is gone, then revert to annual leave. When that runs out apply for short term disability. We do not have light duty status at Sykesville.
Lancaster was also advised that she was being treated the same as male employees. That issue remains a point of contention between the parties.
After Lancaster had her son in October, 2011 she sought permission to return to work. She emailed Lubberman who replied: "What makes you think that you still have a job at Sykesville?"
The two exchanged additional emails and quoting from the complaint:
Mr. Luebberman responded, "I'm not sure we want you back with us at this time. Board meeting tonight." Mr. Luebbennan never offered any explanation for why SFDFD did not "want her back"- he never referenced poor performance or any elimination of her job. Similarly, the Minutes from the SFDFD Board of Directors meeting offer nothing more than, "EMPLOYEE: We wilI be hiring a full time ALS provider." There is no reference to any performance issues on the part of Ms. Lancaster and it is clear that SFDFFD was looking for a replacement for her position. Ms. Lancaster received a letter from Kevin M. Shiloli (President) on November 15, 2011 stating, '"The-Employee Board along with the Board of Directors of The Sykesville Freedom District Fire Department regrets to inform you that your employment with the Sykesville Freedom District Fire Department has been terminated effective November 15, 2011. We however, wish you success in your future endeavors."
The two count complaint alleges that Lancaster’s termination was due to her pregnancy, constituting discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as under Title 20 of the “Maryland State Government Article”.
Here is a copy of the complaint: Lancaster v Sykesville
Incidentally, it appears that Lancaster was the first pregnant employee that Sykesville Freedom District Fire Department has had to deal with. It would also appear that the department was in a reactionary mode in dealing with the issues that commonly arise with pregnant employees.
Departments in such a reactionary mode may be tempted to try to address pregnancy-related leave issues with a cost-management approach in mind. Hint: that is probably not a good idea. Getting good HR and legal advice is critical in such situations.
The best course of action for any fire department is to think through all the implications associated with pregnant employees well in advance of such a situation. That way a policy can be developed at a point in time when there is no particular employee – with the history and baggage that real life employees inevitably introduce – that can add a whole other level of complexity to policy development.