By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 15, 2005
Three District emergency medical technicians who said they had abortions after being threatened with losing their jobs if they became pregnant will each receive $101,000 as compensation.
The three women, who were new trainees in the D.C. Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services in 2001, filed suit in the fall of 2002 alleging they were required to take pregnancy tests when they applied for jobs and then warned they could lose those jobs if they became pregnant. All three, then 21 to 27 years old, said they arranged to abort their pregnancies after the warning from a top department official.
The U.S. Justice Department intervened in the lawsuit last year on behalf of the women and used its muscle to push a recalcitrant D.C. government to settle the case, according to court records. A federal judge last week approved the deal for the women, whose identities have been protected and who still work as D.C. emergency medical technicians.
"These women were put in a box: Choose your job or choose your child," said Louis Malone, an attorney for the women. "We hope that, with this settlement, what was inflicted on our clients will never happen to anyone again."
Malone praised the women's courage in challenging the government when they were new to their jobs. He said that over the years, each has come to terms with the ordeal, "but there is still some emotional scarring." Two of the women became pregnant again and gave birth during the course of the lawsuit.
Under additional terms of the settlement, the D.C. Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services must train managers and employees about the rights of pregnant employees and submit quarterly reports to the Justice Department on its education efforts and grievances or charges filed by pregnant employees.
The case dragged on in the courts initially, with the city claiming it was not responsible. Lawyers with the D.C. attorney general's office asserted that the women chose to have abortions knowing that emotional pain and suffering could result. Attorneys for the city said that the women had access to the city's grievance process and that their attorneys failed to tell them that the District could not fire employees for being pregnant.
According to an investigation by the D.C. inspector general in 2002, evidence suggested that the interim assistant chief of EMS operations, Samanthia Robinson, had warned rookie workers in anorientation session that they would be fired if they became pregnant.
The inspector general recommended disciplinary action for Robinson, and she took early retirement in 2002.
The city acknowledged that its fire and emergency medical services department had a longstanding policy requiring female applicants to take pregnancy tests for firefighter and medical technician jobs. Then-department chief Ronnie Few also sent letters to applicants telling them that a positive pregnancy test could preclude their hiring.
The city's bill in the legal dispute may be sizable. In addition to the $303,000 in cash payments, there are considerable attorneys' fees from the past three years, and the city must pay most of them. The Justice Department will cover its costs, but the city must pay for the legal work for the city, the plaintiffs and Robinson.
Over the course of the suit, the city authorized hiring a lawyer for Robinson, who filed counterclaims against the women. She said they had slandered her by making "false" and "odious" remarks about her to the inspector general's investigators, and she demanded $2.1 million for her lost job and pension benefits. Her complaints were dismissed.
In a statement released by her attorney last week, Robinson said the women's claims about her were wrong.
"I have always denied the allegations about me, and I am confident I would have prevailed at trial; however, my conscience is clear and I now merely want to go on with my life," she said.