Firing a disabled employee while he’s out on medical leave is usually a recipe for disaster. But it can be done in limited circumstances. However, the potentially discriminatory nature of this firing was a little too obvious for the EEOC to overlook.
Meet Doug Johnson. He drove a van and took nursing home patients to medical appointments for his employer Paloma Blanca Health Care Associates, a health and rehabilitation center in Albuquerque, NM.
Almost three years into his tenure, Johnson suffered a heart attack and was diagnosed with a number of other cardiovascular conditions.
He then requested a reasonable accommodation under the ADA in the form of a request for FMLA leave.
Paloma Blanca approved him for 12 weeks of FMLA leave.
So far so good, right?
Fired as part of an ‘RIF’
Five weeks into his medical leave things took a sharp turn.
Johnson was terminated.
Firing a person while on medical leave is enough to perk up the EEOC’s antenna. But Paloma Blanca didn’t stop there.
It notified Johnson that it had eliminated his position and was laying him off due to a “reduction in force.”
Granted, a legitimate RIF is actually one of the ways employers can terminate individuals on medical leave — assuming it could be proven those workers would’ve been let go regardless of their medical condition or leave of absence.
But problem for Paloma Blanca was this looked like anything but a legitimate RIF, at least according to the info contained in the EEOC’s press release on the matter.
No other Paloma Blanca employees were subjected to an RIF at that time, the EEOC said, and there were no department- or facility-wide reductions in force around that time either.
So the EEOC sued Paloma Blanca under the ADA for disability discrimination and for failing to provide reasonable accommodations to a disabled individual.
Perhaps seeing how bad this looked, Paloma Blanca decided to settle the lawsuit by providing Johnson $145,000 in monetary relief.
As part of the settlement, Paloma also agreed to:
- expunge from Johnson’s personnel file any references to the allegations of discrimination, his participation in the lawsuit or his disabilities
- review and distribute to employees its policies regarding disability discrimination and retaliation
- provide its employees with training regarding disability discrimination and procedures for handling requests for reasonable accommodations, and
- post a notice emphasizing the company’s equal employment opportunity policy and reaffirming its commitment to providing reasonable accommodations for employees and applicants with disabilities.