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Fired worker’s ADA claim against medical center can proceed

Americans with Disabilities Act ruling

A federal appeals court has reversed a lower court opinion and held a terminated 28-year medical center employee can pursue her Americans with Disabilities Act claim, in a case filed on her behalf by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Cecilia Whitten edited Florence, South Carolina-based McLeod Health Inc.’s internal employee newsletter, according to Thursday’s ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. McLeod Health Inc. She typically traveled among McLeod’s various campuses as part of her job, according to the ruling.

Ms. Whitten was born with a physical disability, “post axial hypoplasia of the lower extremity,” and consequently did not have certain bones in her legs, feet and right hand. Her lower legs were also shorter than normal and her right arm shorter than her left, according to the ruling.

Despite the limited mobility caused by her disability, she satisfactorily performed her duties for almost three decades, according to the ruling.

Ms. Whitten’s manager began repeatedly expressing concerns about her performance to the medical center’s human resources department, stating she had missed deadlines, arrived late to work and had a “less-than-enthusiastic attitude” about McLeod’s internal messaging.

She also said Ms. Whitten looked “sluggish” as if walking was more difficult than usual and appeared flushed and winded after moving very short distances.

In 2012, Ms. Whitten fell three times over a four-month span, including once at work. After the manager reported the third fall, the company’s occupational health department determined she needed to undergo a fitness-for-duty medical exam. A nurse practitioner concluded Ms. Whitten needed further testing, and she was placed on paid administrative leave pending the results of this test.

Following this test, an occupational therapist recommended Ms. Whitten be given certain accommodations, including restricting travel to no more than 10 miles from her main office.

Ms. Whitten did not believe she needed an accommodation to continue doing her job, but submitted her own request for accommodations, under the belief she was required to do so. These included limitations on walking and standing “as much as possible.”

McLeod then informed Ms. Whitten that she could not return to her job because her proposed accommodations would prevent her from traveling to the company’s various campuses, “thereby nullifying the purpose of her position.” She was placed on unpaid medical leave and terminated six months later.

The EEOC filed suit in U.S. District Court in Florence, South Carolina, charging the medical center with violating the ADA. The district court dismissed the lawsuit, a ruling a three-judge appellate court panel unanimously overturned.

“The threshold question here is whether navigating to and within McLeod’s campuses was an essential function of Whitten’s job,” said the ruling. “McLeod says it was; the EEOC says it was not.”

“There is no doubt that the record contains evidence supporting McLeod’s position,’ said the ruling. “On the other hand, the record also contains evidence supporting EEOC’s position that although Whitten preferred to navigate McLeod’s various campuses to conduct in-person interviews, take photographs, and attend company events, doing so was not actually essential to her job. For instance, McLeod’s own written description of Whitten’s position contains no mention of navigating to and from company events or conducting in-person interviews.”

“Our job at this stage is not to decide which party’s evidence is stronger or more persuasive … Accordingly, the question is one for the jury, and McLeod is not entitled to summary judgment on the EEOC’s illegal-exam claim,” said the ruling, in reversing the lower court and remanding the case for further proceedings.



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