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Fired call center worker’s discrimination claim reinstated


A federal appeals court on Friday reinstated a disability discrimination claim filed by a call center employee who was terminated after seeking a reduced schedule under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Greenwood Village, Colorado-based First Data Technologies, a credit and debit card processing company, employed Terri Cowgill as a call center representative from 2004 until September 2015, according to the ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, in Terri Cowgill v. First Data Technologies Inc; Fiserv Solutions LLC.

In January 2015 Ms. Cowgill asked for a reduced schedule under the FLMA because of back pain she was experiencing from an automobile accident, which was approved. 

In August 2015, she recertified her request for FMLA leave, which was also approved.

Ms. Cowgill was terminated in September 2015 after being twice accused of inappropriately handling a phone call.

She sued the company in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, charging it with disability discrimination, failure to accommodate under the ADA, and retaliation under the ADA and FMLA. The district court granted First Data’s motions to dismiss the case. 

The 4th Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Ms. Cowgill’s failure-to-accommodate and retaliation claims but reinstated her disability discrimination claim.

On the issue of whether Ms. Cowgill had been fulfilling her employer’s expectations, one of the elements considered to determine disability discrimination, the ruling said, “If an employer genuinely believed that one of its employees were performing poorly … it seems unlikely that it would rate the employee’s performance highly.

 “Yet that is what happened here. The record shows that Cowgill ‘routinely received above-average performance reviews,’ and for two periods received the highest rating possible.

To prove disability discrimination, a plaintiff must also show that the adverse action occurred under circumstances “that create a reasonable inference of unlawful discrimination,” the ruling said.

Ms. Cowgill was twice placed on an improvement plan, once three weeks after she requested an accommodation and again immediately after she confirmed she was requesting recertification of her FMLA leave, the ruling said.

The “extremely short time gap” raises a discriminatory inference, the ruling said in remanding the disability discrimination claim for further proceedings.

In a partial dissent, one of the judges on the three-judge panel said he disagreed that Ms. Cowgill had established she was fulfilling First Data’s expectations when she was discharged.

Attorneys in the case did not respond to requests for comment.