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Ex-insurer employee’s disability bias charges reinstated


A federal appeals court has reinstated disability discrimination charges filed by a former insurer employee who charged she was fired despite excellent evaluations because her multiple sclerosis condition was costly for its benefits plan.

A key factor in Monday’s ruling by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta in Jennifer Akridge v. Alfa Mutual Insurance Co. was that Ms. Akridge tried unsuccessfully more than a dozen times to depose the Montgomery, Alabama-based insurer’s top human resources official, but was repeatedly denied by the lower court.

Ms. Akridge worked for Alfa for 27 years, beginning in 1989. In 1993, she was diagnosed with MS, which caused her to suffer migraine headaches and prevented her from sitting for long periods of time as her legs became number or restless, among other symptoms.

Despite her diagnosis, she continued to receive positive performance reviews, and one year was selected as employee of the year out of almost 1,000 employees.

“The positive work reviews continued until Akridge was fired on Dec. 2, 2016,” the ruling said. 

Ms. Akridge filed suit against Alfa in 2017, alleging the insurer had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by subjecting her to disparate treatment based on her disability, claiming she was terminated to avoid paying the expensive health insurance costs related to her MS treatment. 

The company contended her position’s termination was because of a reorganization and automation introduced to reduce costs.

The district court in Montgomery refused Ms. Akridge’s efforts to depose the executive on the basis he did not have any material knowledge of the circumstances surrounding her termination.

It granted the insurer’s motion for summary judgment in the case, concluding she had not demonstrated the insurer’s decision-makers knew of any employee’s medical costs, and therefore had failed to show it considered her disability in deciding to eliminate her position.

The ruling was overturned by a unanimous three-judge appeals court panel. “The Supreme Court has stressed on multiple occasions the need to construe (the Federal Rule of civil Procedure) liberally to allow for robust discovery,” it said.

“We find that the district court committed a clear error of judgment when it impermissibly curtailed her access to discoverable information,” it said.

“Alfa argues that Akridge has not shown that (the executive) has any information touching on the issues related to this case, that his deposition would be unduly burdensome, and that it is being pursued as part of a ‘fishing expedition.’ We are not convinced,” it said. 

“It stands to reason that if a company terminates an employee in an effort to ‘cut costs,’ someone at that company must have access to information on how costly an employee is - including pay and benefits. And ‘benefits’ necessarily includes employer-provided health care.

“For Akridge, that includes many high-cost medications that she needs to treat her MS. In total, these medications cost approximately ten thousand dollars each month.”

The ruling said, “we find it difficult to believe” that the insurer’s human resources executive vice president “had no information touching on Akridge’s medical expense and termination,” and if he truly did not have such information “we see no reason why he cannot make himself available for questioning and say as much in a deposition.”

The panel vacated the lower court’s grant of summary judgment, reversed its denial of the motion to compel the executive’s deposition, and remanded the case with instructions that the executive be deposed.

One of Ms. Akridge’s attorneys, Julian Lenwood McPhillips Jr., of McPhillips Shinbaum LLP in Montgomery, said he “is just really delighted with the outcome of this case,” which he said, will be cited by other attorneys seeking to obtain dispositions, and is also a victory for the disabled.

A spokesman for the insurer said in a statement Alfa does not comment on pending litigation.