Are Employees Protected From Disability Discrimination After Disclosing A Serious Medical Condition?
Having fought for the rights of employment discrimination victims for nearly twenty years, our Citrus County, Florida employment discrimination attorneys have learned that employers often terminate employees shortly after they disclose a serious medical condition. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects employees from disability discrimination when they have an actual disability or an employer regards them as having a disability. In other words, employees are protected from disability discrimination if an employer believes they are, or treats them, as disabled—even if they do not have an actual disability. The recent decision by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan in Hardcastle v. Center for Family Health, No. 17-12491 (E.D. Mich. Mar. 28, 2019) is instructive in showing that when an employee is fired shortly after disclosing a serious medical condition, the employee can establish that he or she was fired on the basis of disability in violation of the ADA because the employer regarded the employee as disabled after the serious medical condition was disclosed.
Long-Term Employee With Excellent Evaluations
In that case, Sheri Hardcastle (Hardcastle) brought an employment discrimination lawsuit against her former employer, Center for Family Health (Family Health), pursuant to the ADA. Hardcastle claimed that she was fired because of her disability in violation of the ADA. Hardcastle was employed by Family Health as a Dental Manager. Her employment began in August 2004. Hardcastle supervised approximately 18 employees, including dental assistants and technicians. Hardcastle reported to a woman named Benedetto, who was the Chief Operating Officer of Family Health.
Benedetto completed Hardcastle’s performance evaluations. Hardcastle’s performance evaluations “showed her to be highly rated, described as an effective manager, and commended on staff interactions and communications.” In her review less than two months before Hardcastle was fired, Benedetto “commended” Hardcastle “on her interactions with staff and her communication.” Benedetto did not recall ever disciplining Hardcastle. Thus, Hardcastle “had 11 years of good conduct” and “excellent reviews” during her employment with Family Health.
In April 2015, Hardcastle began experiencing vision impairment, facial drooping, migraine headaches, and head and neck pain. Through May and into June 2015, Hardcastle was “off work a lot” for doctor appointments and diagnostic tests. Benedetto was aware that Hardcastle was taking paid time off for medical appointments. In July 2015, Hardcastle was diagnosed with Horners Syndrome, a neurological condition that cannot be treated. Horners Syndrome “causes vision difficulty, head pain, and neck pain.”
Employee Discloses Serious Medical Condition
During the litigation, Benedetto testified that, prior to August 12, 2015, Hardcastle “discussed with her that [she] had a medical condition that she had just learned of and that she might have doctor appointments.” At some point after August 12, 2015, Benedetto decided to discipline Hardcastle—though she did not recall when or why. It was the first time that Benedetto had disciplined Hardcastle in her eleven-year employment.
Benedetto and Hardcastle held a meeting on August 24, 2015. Hardcastle reminded Benedetto that she had shared her diagnosis of a neurological syndrome with Benedetto several weeks earlier. Hardcastle told Benedetto that her condition “could require a medical leave.” Later that day, Hardcastle sent an email to the Human Resources Director regarding her medical condition. Hardcastle informed the Human Resources Director that she had been “diagnosed with a neurological condition a few months ago,” and that the cause of her condition could be “brain or spinal lesions, thyroid cancer, issues with the carotid artery, or lung cancer.”
Employee Fired Shortly After Disclosure
On September 2, 2015, Benedetto and the Human Resources Director fired Hardcastle. The proffered reason for the termination was that Hardcastle used “poor judgment as a supervisor” based on her comments and questions towards her staff members. Hardcastle was replaced by an employee who does not have a disability.
Family Health did not terminate employees who engaged in worse conduct than Hardcastle. A dentist was found to have viewed pornography on office computers and “a significant issue with a provider” that could create a sexual hostile work environment. Benedetto gave the dentist a warning “because it was not easy to find dentists.” When another employee quit and complained of disability discrimination, the Human Resources Director’s investigation consisted of talking to the employees who were the subject of the complaint and determining that they were “very supportive” of the employee who complained.
Employee Claims She Was Regarded As Disabled
Family Health filed a motion with the trial court seeking dismissal of Hardcastle’s disability discrimination claim. In doing so, Family Health argued that Hardcastle could not establish that she was disabled within the meaning of the ADA or that she was fired on the basis of disability in violation of the ADA. Hardcastle contended that even if she did not have an actual disability, she was protected from disability discrimination by the ADA because Family Health regarded her as disabled after she disclosed her diagnosis of Horners Syndrome. Hardcastle further maintained that she was not fired because she allegedly exercised poor judgment, but, rather, because Family Health regarded her as disabled after she disclosed her diagnosis of Horners Syndrome. The trial court denied Family Health’s motion for dismissal and ruled that Hardcastle was entitled to bring her disability discrimination claim before a jury.
Employee Entitled To Proceed To Trial
In finding that Hardcastle had presented sufficient evidence to establish that she was protected from disability discrimination by the ADA, the trial court pointed to evidence showing that Family Health believed that Hardcastle was, or treated her, as disabled. The trial court observed that Hardcastle told Benedetto that her medical condition would require medical leave and emailed the Human Resources Director that the cause of her medical condition could be “brain or spinal lesions, thyroid cancer, issues with the carotid artery, or lung cancer.” Based on this evidence, the trial court concluded that a jury could reasonably find that Family Health regarded Hardcastle as disabled.
Turning to the issue of whether Hardcastle was fired because Family Health regarded her as disabled, the trial court concluded that a reasonable jury could find that the reason proffered for Hardcastle’s termination was a pretext for disability discrimination. In support of this conclusion, the trial court observed that terminating Hardcastle for poor judgment was inconsistent with Hardcastle’s consistently excellent performance evaluations, including the one less than two months before she was fired. The trial court further explained that terminating Hardcastle for poor judgment, but not firing a dentist who used office computers to view pornography, tended to establish that Hardcastle was not fired for poor judgment, but rather, “due to disclosing that she has Horners Syndrome.” Consequently, the trial court determined that it was for a jury to decide whether Hardcastle was terminated because of her perceived disability.
Free Consultation With Inverness Discrimination Lawyers
Based in Ocala, Florida and representing employees throughout Central Florida, we are dedicated to representing victims of employment discrimination. If you have been the victim of disability discrimination or have questions about your protection against disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act, please contact our office for a free consultation with our Citrus County, Florida employment discrimination attorneys. Our employment and labor law attorneys take employment discrimination cases on a contingency fee basis. This means that there are no attorney’s fees incurred unless there is a recovery and our attorney’s fees come solely from the monetary award that you recover.