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Nursing Home Successfully Defends Against EEOC Lawsuit Alleging Wrongful Termination Related to Anxiety Disorder

Under Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), an employer must reasonably accommodate a known disability if the accommodation would not impose an undue hardship on the employer’s business. To succeed in an ADA-based lawsuit, the plaintiff must establish the existence of a disability, show that he or she can perform the essential functions of the job, show that the employer knew of the disability, and show that the plaintiff was treated differently. Employers often defend such cases by disputing whether a plaintiff suffers from a qualified disability and/or by providing a legal, non-pretextual reason for the negative action. Such was the scenario for a nursing home, West Meade Place LLP, and its former employee Carma Kean.

Ms. Kean was a laundry technician at West Meade Place from February 2015 to November 2015. She alleged that her anxiety disorder was a qualified disability. In 2018, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) sued West Meade Place for allegedly violating the ADA by discharging Ms. Kean because of her disability. The EEOC alleged that while Ms. Kean was under treatment for anxiety, she sought intermittent leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The EEOC alleged that West Meade Place ignored Ms. Kean’s FMLA request, and by doing so, it violated the ADA because the intermittent leave was also a reasonable accommodation.

West Meade Place argued (1) that Ms. Kean was not disabled under the ADA, (2) that it never learned of Ms. Kean’s disability, and (3) that Ms. Kean was terminated for falsifying documentation. Regarding her disability, the EEOC primarily relied on the testimony of Dr. Aisha Hashmat, Ms. Kean’s primary physician. District Court Judge William L. Campbell, Jr. considered Dr. Hashmat’s testimony and found she did not explain how she reached her diagnosis. Judge Campbell also noted that Dr. Hashmat believed that she could not refuse Ms. Kean’s requests for time off. Accordingly, Judge Campbell held that Dr. Hashmat’s testimony did not establish Ms. Kean’s anxiety as a mental impairment that affected her ability to work. Judge Campbell also considered written records and West Meade Place managers’ perception of Ms. Kean’s ability to do her job. After considering the record, Judge Campbell held that Ms. Kean and the EEOC failed to establish that Ms. Kean’s anxiety “rose to the level of a mental impairment that substantially limited a major life activity,” and granted West Meade Place’s motion for summary judgment.

This case demonstrates the importance of an employer being able to justify all adverse employment decisions with a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason, even in “at will” employment states. If an employer has documentation which demonstrates the justification for any such adverse employment decisions, it will have a good chance of defeating any employment-related claims unless the employee can present evidence that the proposed reasons were a pretext, which is often a difficult burden for the employee to carry.

The case citation is EEOC v. West Meade Place LLP, No. 3:18-CV-00101, 2019 WL 5394314 (M.D. Tenn. Oct. 22, 2019).