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Discrimination and Retaliation Claims of Nurse with Night Blindness May Proceed, Tennessee Federal Court Rules

Denying a nursing home’s motion for summary judgment, a federal court in Tennessee has allowed a nurse who suffered from impaired vision to proceed with her age and disability discrimination claims and a claim for retaliation.Harris v. MatureCare of Standifer Place, LLC d/b/a The Health Center at Standifer Place, C.A. No. 1:14-CV-64 (E.D. Tenn. Aug. 5, 2015).

In 1998, Ruth Harris, then aged 53, was hired by the nursing home to work on the evening shift as a Licensed Practical Nurse. In 2010, because Harris told her supervisor she had difficulty seeing and driving at night, she was moved to the day shift. In November 2012, Harris was moved back to the evening shift over her protests. On January 11, 2013, Harris filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. The nursing home terminated her employment on January 15, 2013.

Harris then sued the nursing home in federal district court for violation of Tennessee and federal law by discriminating against her on the basis of her age and disability and retaliating against her for filing a claim with the EEOC. The nursing home moved for summary judgment, which was denied as to all counts.

In her deposition, Harris stated she was told that she was moved back to the second shift because she was older and that “[the facility] needed a younger nurse because the State was coming [to review the facility].” The court found that this evidence, if credited, demonstrated that age was the “but for” cause of the nursing home’s actions, even though the statement was made in connection with moving Harris to the second shift rather than the decision to terminate her employment.

The court also found that Harris presented sufficient evidence that she had night blindness, which prevented her from driving at night, to survive summary judgment on her disability discrimination claim. The nursing home contended that a sharp uptick in problems with Harris’s performance after she returned to the second shift provided a legitimate nondiscriminatory basis for the decision to terminate her employment. Harris disputed several of the disciplinary notices relied upon by the nursing home and pointed to younger employees who were not fired for similar mistakes. The court found this evidence sufficient to create a factual question for the jury as to whether the employer’s proffered reasons for terminating her employment were pretextual.

Finally, the court found the close temporal proximity of the dates on which the termination notice was written, Harris’s counsel faxed the employer a copy of her EEOC charge, and the termination notice was signed by her supervisor, sufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the termination of her employment was causally connected to her filing a charge with the EEOC.

The evidence that Harris presented disputing several of the disciplinary notices and pointing to younger employees whose employment was not terminated for similar mistakes was a key factor in the denial of the nursing home’s motion for summary judgment on the age discrimination and retaliation claims. This demonstrates the importance of ensuring supervisors are consistent when issuing discipline to employees.

Jackson Lewis P.C. © 2019

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About this Author

Michael Bertoncini, Jackson Lewis, labor relations attorney, employment litigation lawyer, NLRB proceedings counsel, arbitration law
Principal

Michael R. Bertoncini is a Principal in the Boston, Massachusetts, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He practices labor and employment law, with a particular emphasis on labor relations, and employment law counseling and litigation.

In labor relations matters, he regularly counsels clients on the practice of positive employee relations, negotiates collective bargaining agreements on behalf of organized clients, represents clients in labor arbitrations and National Labor Relations Board proceedings, and counsels clients with...

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