A former employee with WellStar Health System failed to demonstrate to a federal appeals court that she was terminated from her job based on a disability instead of her admission that she reported to work impaired by prescription drugs. The former employee had filed an ADA claim against WellStar Health System for discriminatory termination). Welstar’s termination report stated that the employee in question reported to work impaired in violation of their policy.
As we know, the ADA prohibits an employer from discriminating based upon the known physical or mental impairments of a qualified individual with a disability, including terminating employment based on disability. Per the ADA, an employee has the initial burden of showing that he or she has a disability, is a qualified individual and has experienced unlawful discrimination because of the disability. If an employee makes this showing, the burden then shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the challenged action. If the employer provides such a reason, the burden then shifts back to the employee to show that the employer’s reason is pretext (an excuse to do or say something that is not accurate).
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the plaintiff failed to disprove that WellStar’s reason for termination was pretextual. The court noted that the plaintiff admitted that she had undisclosed prescription drugs in her system and was impaired as a result. However, the plaintiff argued that WellStar improperly terminated her employment solely for working while impaired as a result of her depression, that WellStar should have consulted a physician to determine if the unreported drugs caused the impairment, and that by not doing so, Wellstar’s stated reason for her termination was pretextual.
The court was unconvinced by the plaintiff’s position and remarked that even if WellStar was mistaken that the plaintiff was impaired due to the influence of a prescribed medication, it could have believed this to be true when she was impaired and using a prescribed medication, the use of which had not been reported previously, in violation of its policy. Consequently, the 11th Circuit stated that an employer’s honest belief that an employee violated its policies can constitute a legitimate reason for termination even if the employer’s belief may have been mistaken.
The plaintiff also pointed to several other facts that allegedly suggested that WellStar’s stated reason for terminating her was pretextual. The plaintiff maintained that a doctor’s note she received the morning of the incident confirmed that she was able to return to work that day and indicated that the doctor did not find her mental state “amiss.” Yet the court emphasized that the note came from a follow-up to her recent rectal surgery, not as a mental-health assessment or a professional opinion on her state of mind, and therefore it did not directly disprove WellStar’s good-faith belief that prescription drugs led to her inability to perform her job.
The plaintiff further contended that WellStar did not complete an employee conference form giving her an opportunity to dispute the positive drug-test result in accordance with its own internal policies. While this may have been a deviation from company policy, the court observed no basis to suggest that the deviation occurred in a discriminatory manner. As such, the 11th Circuit concluded that WellStar’s stated reason for terminating the plaintiff was one that could motivate a reasonable employer, and it accordingly granted summary judgment in WellStar’s favor on the plaintiff’s discriminatory-termination claim.
Connelly v. WellStar Health System Inc., 11th Cir., No. 18-11217 (Jan. 9, 2019).
IMPORTANT TO NOTE: Clear policies that are uniformly implemented can significantly assist an employer’s defense against discrimination claims.
Reference: Roger S. Achille, Esq.
Mr. Achille is an attorney and a professor at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I.