The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruled on Oct. 26 that sufficient evidence existed for the jury to find that a nursing home cook was fired because she was regarded as disabled, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, affirming a $21,240 verdict, EEOC v. Heartway Corp., (10th Cir., no. 05-7011).
The 10th Circuit also reversed the lower court’s ruling in favor of Heartway on the issue of punitive damages and sent the case back for a new trial solely on punitive damages.
According to the court, hepatitis C is a viral disease transmitted by blood to blood contact. Janet Edwards, began treatment for the disease in 2000.
By January 2001, the disease was in remission and no detectable amount of hepatitis C was in her blood. However, because there is no cure, Edwards continued to receive treatment and was monitored through at least July 2003.
In August 2001, Edwards applied for a job at Heartway-owned York Manor Nursing Home in Muskogee, OK. She answered “no” to a question on the application form about whether she was under a doctor’s care or currently taking medications. The nursing home hired Edwards as a dietary aide, and she later became a cook.
On April 1, 2002, Edwards cut her hand while at work. Her sister, who also worked at the nursing home, told the nursing director that Edwards had hepatitis. Later that day, Edwards discussed her hepatitis with the nursing director. Two days later, the nursing director told Edwards she could not return to work without a doctor’s authorization.
Edwards received a letter of authorization from her doctor on April 5, 2002. But before she could bring the letter to the nursing home, the kitchen supervisor called to tell her she was fired. Having asked for an authorization as a condition of continued employment, the nursing director should have waited for such a letter, and engaged in a conversation about safety policies at work and any reasonable accommodations.
The following week, Edwards took the doctor’s letter to Mitchell Townsend, the administrator, asking to be reinstated. Edwards later testified that Townsend said: “Well, Jane, you have hepatitis C, you will not work in our kitchen.”
When Edwards asked if she was being fired because of her hepatitis, the administrator allegedly said: “No. I’m firing you because you falsified information on your application.”
Edwards filed a discrimination charge with the EEOC in June 2002. An EEOC investigator called Townsend, who allegedly asked: “How would you like to eat food containing her blood, if she cut her finger≠”
The investigator also testified that Townsend said “if this got out to their clients, they would have a mass exodus from their nursing home.”
The EEOC sued Heartway on Edwards’ behalf in September 2003.
In affirming the jury’s verdict, the appeals court held: “A jury could reasonably view the testimony as showing that Townsend believed Edwards was restricted in her ability to do any kitchen job … and any other job where there is a chance of bleeding and thereby transmitting hepatitis,” and it found that “the jobs from which Edwards was regarded as restricted constituted a class of jobs.”
The breadth of jobs Edwards was restricted from, without any reliance on her doctor’s authorization letter, a condition of continued employment — demonstrates Edwards was regarded as disabled and diseased.
This may give rise to punitive damages in the trial de novo. The fear of hepatitis C became the basis for Edwards’ termination with a total disregard for her ability to work.
Lindy Korn practices at The Law Office of Lindy Korn and can be reached at [email protected] or (716) 845-5500.