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Visible skin lesions suggest employer may have known of employee’s disability

By Kathleen Kapusta, J.D.

Finding fact issues as to whether the decisonmakers in an employee’s termination knew about her impairments—she had been diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis, psoriasis, and ankylosing spondylitis three years earlier—a federal court in Pennsylvania observed that while she didn’t inform them of her conditions, she was covered in head-to-toe skin lesions. Denying summary judgment on her ADA claim, the court explained that without a clear understanding of whether management knew she suffered from these impairments, it was impossible to determine whether she was fired as a result of discrimination. Her age discrimination claim failed, however (Weber v. Community Medical Center, November 2, 2017, Mannion, M.).

Hired in 1979, the CT scan technician was 48 years old when she was diagnosed in 2006 with psoriatic arthritis, psoriasis, and ankylosing spondylitis, conditions that caused her to suffer from visible head-to-toe skin lesions, swelling of the joints and skin, back and joint pain, and muscle stiffness. At that time, she told only her supervisor about her diagnosis.

Complaints. Three years later, on her January 2009 performance evaluation, the employee received all exceeds or meets expectations. On the written portion of the evaluation, however, her supervisor noted that the employee needed to work on her patient skills. In August of that year, the medical center received three complaints in five days about the employee’s handling of patients. The first was from the adult daughter of an elderly patient who reported that a CT scan technician had treated her father roughly. Further investigation, however, revealed that both the employee and another tech had assisted with the patient’s CT scan on the evening in question.

The second complaint came from a patient who alleged that an unspecified CT scan tech had been rough in moving him but again there was evidence that another tech also assisted with this patient’s scan. The third complaint came three days later from a patient’s daughter who claimed the employee had coerced her into signing a medical consent form for her incapacitated father. In between the second and third complaints, the employee asked an HR analyst for information on whether the medical center’s insurance would cover the cost of medications for her ailments.

Termination. Shortly after the complaints, three members of management—including the employee’s supervisor’s boss and the HR analyst’s boss—decided to terminate the employee for her “unprofessional, aggressive behavior” that was “detrimental to . . . the health care system,” a “safety risk to . . . patients,” and a “serious violation of [CMC’s] Code of Conduct.”

Age discrimination. Although the employee sued the medical center under state law and the ADEA for unlawful age discrimination, her failure to plead that anyone replaced her was fatal to her claim, said the court, explaining that since she did not identify any replacement for her former position as an x-ray technician at CMC and since her termination was not the result of a reduction in force, she failed to provide sufficient evidence for a jury to return a verdict in her favor on her age discrimination claims.

Disability discrimination. Turning to her ADA and state-law disability discrimination claims, the court found a fact dispute over whether members of management actually knew about the employee’s disability when they decided to terminate her. Although she informed her supervisor and the HR analyst about her impairments, and their supervisors were decisionmakers in her termination, the Third Circuit has held that “knowledge of one party cannot be imputed to another who is making the hiring decision,” the court here observed. Thus the knowledge of supervisor and HR analyst alone would not be enough to establish that the medical center knew of her disability.

But in this case, there were additional facts suggesting that management may have known about her impairments: her head-to-toe skin lesions. According to the employee, the marks were “very obvious and apparent . . . to everyone” and people often “commented on them” and asked whether she suffered from a disease. While the medical center denied that any of the decisionmakers had direct knowledge of her disabilities, the employee worked there for roughly three years after developing these external, observable signs of illness. Further, it was undisputed that members of management were familiar with the employee and came into regular contact with her. Without a clear understanding of whether management “regarded” her as having an impairment that substantially limited her major life activities, it was impossible to determine whether she was disabled within the meaning of the ADA, said the court. Similarly, without a clear understanding of whether management knew she suffered from these impairments, it was impossible to determine whether she was fired as a result of discrimination.