“Ignorance” May Not Be Bliss: Tenth Circuit Court Denies Employer’s Motion for Summary Judgment on ADA Claim
In Preeson v. Parkview Medical Center, a federal court in Colorado denied Defendant’s motion for summary dismissal of a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Plaintiff alleged, in relevant part, that her termination from employment constituted discrimination on account of a disability. Plaintiff suffered from Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome (“CVS”). As such, she contended her absences from work were the result of sudden spells of nausea. The employer argued that it was not on notice of this condition because she did not reveal it to her supervisor.
To establish a prima facie discrimination case under the ADA, Plaintiff must show that “her employer terminated her under circumstances giving rise to an inference that termination was based on Plaintiff’s disability.” Further, if the employer provides any legitimate, non-discriminatory explanation for the adverse employment action, Plaintiff must demonstrate that the explanation is pretextual, or more likely motivated by discrimination.
In this instance, the employer admitted that CVS constituted a disability. However, it contended that without knowledge of Plaintiff’s disability, it was impossible that her termination could have been “under circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination.” The Court disagreed. It found that, at the very least, the employer was aware that Plaintiff suffered from frequent nausea and vomiting, which caused her to take leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Additionally, Plaintiff informed her supervisor that she took medication to address her nausea. The Court considered this evidence sufficient to satisfy Plaintiff’s prima facie burden. The Court also found the employer’s reason for Plaintiff’s termination – falsification of time records – to be unconvincing and pretext for disability discrimination. Specifically, the Court pointed to a supervisor’s disparaging comment that Plaintiff’s leave was “baloney” and found explicitly that this comment was “probative of an animus toward [Plaintiff] needing to take time off from work due to her disability.”
This decision underscores that employees may be able to succeed on ADA claims without specifically disclosing a diagnosis to their employers. Employers cannot take adverse action while ignoring objective information concerning an employee’s medical condition. Further, supervisors should be educated about the impact of their off-the-cuff opinions about, inter alia, reasons for absences or workers’ medical conditions.