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Speculating About Employee's Medical Condition May Lead to ADA Claim

    Client Alerts
  • November 18, 2019

The Americans with Disabilities Act not only protects persons with actual medical conditions but also those regarded by their employer as disabled, even if they are not. A new decision from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals demonstrates that speculation over an employee’s medical condition during meetings regarding work performance can result in a jury trial to determine the actual reasons behind the termination decision.

In Babb v. Maryville Anesthesiologists P.C., the plaintiff was a certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA). When physicians in the practice noticed that she was reading very close to a computer monitor, she disclosed that she has a degenerative retinal condition that made it hard for her to read small print. However, the CRNA stated that the condition was stable and did not prevent her from performing her job.

According to the practice, the plaintiff made two clinical errors unrelated to any reading or vision issues, resulting in a meeting of the physicians to discuss an appropriate response. During the meeting, the doctors extensively discussed her performance, including concerns over her vision. They decided to terminate her employment based on the errors, and the plaintiff sued, claiming that she was wrongfully regarded as disabled. The district court granted summary judgment to the employer on the basis that the doctors believed that the clinical errors were serious enough to justify this step.

The Sixth Circuit disagreed, reversing the grant of summary judgment and remanding the case for trial. The court noted that during the termination conference the doctors discussed both the clinical errors and the vision issues. The court also noted communications from other CRNAs in the practice stating that the plaintiff had been fired due to her vision problems. This mixing of explanations for the decision created a material question of fact as to the actual reasons for the termination.

This decision demonstrates the problems that can be caused by unsupported speculation over an employee’s medical condition and her resulting abilities and limitations. Absent actual medical information regarding the condition, employers (even doctors) should never base adverse employment actions on their own assessment of the effects of the condition on work performance. If the employee later produces medical evidence stating that she was not impaired, the employer has little actual ability to counteract this information.