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Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. M.G.H. Family Health Center

United States District Court, W.D. Michigan, Southern Division

January 27, 2017

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Plaintiff,
M.G.H. Family Health Center, Defendant.


          Paul L. Maloney United States District Judge

         "The regarded-as-disabled prong of the ADA protects employees who are perfectly able to perform a job, but are rejected . . . because of the myths, fears and stereotypes associated with disabilities." Daugherty v. Sajar Plastics, Inc., 544 F.3d 696, 703 (6th Cir. 2008) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).

         This case presents a peculiar fact-pattern that represents a textbook case for unlawful discrimination under the regarded-as-disabled prong of the ADA.

         In September 2013, Defendant M.G.H. Family Health Center (MGH) hired Avis Lane as a community outreach coordinator. MGH normally required a new hire to undergo a "post-offer" physical with its third-party medical evaluator, Workplace Health, prior to beginning work. Ordinarily, that simple requirement presents little problem under the ADA.

         However, in this case, Lane was assigned employment duties before undergoing a physical, and Workplace Health subsequently recommended that Lane be placed on a medical hold(-even though it initially did not receive a job description and was unaware Lane had begun work).

         Peter Fries, the Physician Assistant who briefly examined Lane, found that while she passed the physical examination itself, Lane's medical records revealed impairments that concerned him and warranted a "medical hold." After receiving the job description, he determined that Lane should not begin work until a functional capacity evaluation (FCE) was performed.

         Little did Fries know, Lane continued to work.

         After fourteen days of successful work, Lane was suddenly confronted by MGH officials, who noted that Workplace Health had recommended Lane be put on a "medical hold" and undergo a costly FCE, which MGH would not pay for. Lane indicated that she was willing to pay for the FCE, but the conversation shifted, and MGH encouraged Lane to obtain a medical clearance from her own doctor (an MGH provider, no less), which she did.

         Meanwhile, despite receiving Lane's full medical clearance, a revised job description with lower lifting requirements, and learning late that Lane had successfully performed the job responsibilities for her sedentary position for five weeks, Fries still refused to change his recommendation. MGH then abruptly ended the individualized inquiry by terminating Lane without paying for the FCE or at a minimum, following up with Lane on her offer to pay for the FCE.

         The trouble for MGH, then, is that direct evidence of its unlawful discrimination is laid bare: MGH, by its own admission, fired Lane because it perceived her impairments as rendering her ineligible for the position-but it did so prior to the completion of any individualized inquiry by Workplace Health.

         As it turns out, Lane was "perfectly able to perform [her] job, " but was nonetheless "rejected" solely because Workplace Health had recommended what to MGH was a mystery "medical hold, " on Lane; MGH viewed Lane as capable but dispensable because of unfounded "fears, " disguised by an already-broken policy, that Lane was somehow medically unworthy to continue her employment. Cf. Daugherty, 544 F.3d at 703.

         To make the evidence worse for MGH, after termination, MGH offered Lane her position back without any conditions, medical examinations, or further inquiry. She declined the invitation and no longer wants to work at MGH.

         In the absence of any disputed material facts, the EEOC, proceeding as the Plaintiff in this case, is entitled to summary judgment as to liability under the ADA, and this matter will proceed to a jury trial for a damages determination.

         I. Background

         Defendant MGH is a federally qualified health center that provides, among other things, medical services, dental services, behavioral health services, and maternal infant health services. (ECFNo. 36-1 atPageID.559-60.)

         Pursuant to the Affordable Care Act, MGH created an outreach and enrollment coordinator position: a grant-funded position tasked with enrolling people in the federal health-insurance marketplace, and conducting community outreach. (Id. at PageID.563.)

         Plaintiff Avis Lane applied for the enrollment coordinator position at some point in the summer of 2013. When Lane applied, she signed a form stating she understood that if she received "a conditional offer of employment, " MGH "maf require her to submit to a physical examination. (ECF No. 34-6 at PageID.378 (emphasis added); see Id. at PageID.379 (emphasis added) ("Q: So, would it be fair that you understood zf Muskegon Family Care offered you a conditional offer of employment you might have to submit to a physical or medical examination including drug testing; is that fair? [Lane:] Yes.").)

         In that vein, MGH had a policy of mandating post-offer, "pre-employment" physicals. (See ECF No. 34-14 at PageID.443 ("Ensure satisfactory completion of the physical exam prior to hiring and assigning duties.").) A candidate was supposed to "pass all . . . post-offer requirements, " including the "post-offer physical, " before "new hire orientation." (ECF Nos. 34-4 at PageID.355; 34-14 at PageID.443.)

         However, with Lane, "the process was a little different" because Human Resources staff "were notified that she needed to start on September 10th, " in a very short timeframe. (ECF No. 36-1 at PageID.558.) Thus, on September 6, 2013, MGH offered Plaintiff Avis Lane the outreach and enrollment coordinator position. (ECF Nos. 34-4 at PageID.357; 34-13 at PageID.441.) The only offer of employment that has been submitted to this Court demonstrates that an unconditionaloffer was made in writing.[1]

         Dear Avis,

I am pleased to confirm the offer of employment made to you as an Outreach/Enrollment Coordinator at Muskegon Family Care. This position is full-time/temporary and is currently grant-funded.
This position is offered at a base rate of $18.00 per hour, subject to deductions for taxes and other withholdings as required by law and Muskegon Family Care policy. Employment with Muskegon Family Care is at-will and either party may terminate the employment relationship at any time with or without cause, or with or without notice.
Please let me know if I can be of any further assistance to you. We are looking forward to your employment with Muskegon Family Care!
Emmitt M. Davis, PHR
Human Resources Director

(ECFNo. 34-13 atPageID.441.) Indeed, Davis testified that Lane was "hired September 10, 2013, " without mentioning any conditions. (ECF No. 34-4 at PageID.358.) Other MGH officials confirmed their understanding that Avis Lane was an employee during the relevant time period. MGH allowed Lane to attend new hire orientation and "to continue working"- even after a physical examination-because it was "making some attempts . . . to retain her as an employee." (ECF No. 34-4 at Page Id. 368 (emphasis added).)

         Accordingly, even the record in the light most favorable to MGH demonstrates that Lane began her actual employment with MGH on September 10, 2013. (ECF No. 36-1 at PageID.557-58); see supranote 1. Certainly, MGH's normal policies would have made her a conditional hire; however, Lane was an employee and not merely a conditional hire because: a) MGH's normal policies were not followed (see, e.g., ECF No. 34-14 at PageID.443; ECF No. 36-1 atPageID.558); b) the undisputed factual record establishes that she was an active employee performing duties as assigned during the relevant time period (see, e.g., ECF No. 34-4 at PageID.368; ECF No. 34-13 at PageID.441); and c) the relevant law provides that while an employer "may require a[n] [employee entrance] examination after an offer of employment has been made to a job applicant"-"and may condition an offer of employment on the results of such examination"-the examination must occur "prior to the commencement of the employment duties of such applicant, " see 42 U.S.C. § 12112(d)(3) (emphasis added); and thus, MGH may not rely on a misclassified health examination as the sole reason to argue the offer was conditional.[2] See infra note 10.

         Notwithstanding MGH's offer letter to Lane, which prompted Lane to begin work on September 10, 2013, MGH informed Lane that she needed to report to Workplace Health for a physical, presumably because that was otherwise the normal process. (ECF No. 36-1 at PageID.558-59.)

         During the physical, a Workplace Health Physician Assistant, Peter Fries, found no signs during Lane's examination that suggested she could not perform her job duties. (See ECF No. 34-2 at PageID.330.) Nonetheless, because Lane's medical records showed she had suffered migraines and thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS) from injuries sustained in a car accident-and was prescribed medications for those conditions-Fries recommended Workplace Health place Lane on a "medical hold." (Id. at PageID.330.) Fries did not, however, realize that Lane had already been assigned work duties, because the normal protocol gave him the ability to recommend that MGH "hold" a conditional hire from beginning work duties, pending the completion of further evaluation. (ECF No. 37-7 at PageID.855.)

         The deposition transcript contains the following exchange:

Q: So everything you inspected on Ms. Lane you noted that it was normal and not abnormal?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: And then at some point you also reviewed her vital signs?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: But you didn't note anything in the Positive Findings/Patient Recommendations regarding her vital signs; is that correct?
A: Correct.
Q: And then on page 4 of the evaluation where you make your recommendation, you recommended medical hold pending further data; is that correct?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: And what was that? Why did you make that recommendation?
A: Based upon her history and narcotic pain medication used, multiple muscle relaxers, anti[-]inflammatories and Lidoderm patch.
Q: Sorry, what did you just state about the medications? Anti[-]inflammatory, Lidoderm patch?
A: Muscle relaxers.
Q: Muscle relaxers?
A: Narcotic pain medication. She's also on Neurontin, which is a drug given for nerve-related pain.
Q: So your physical evaluation of her which we just discussed where you checked normal for all the various parts of her body that you examined, that didn't have any impact on your medical hold recommendation?
A: No.
Q: And similarly, nothing about her vital signs caused you to place her on a medical hold?
A: No.
Q: Anything else besides her medical history and the medication?
A: Correct.
Q: Excuse me, if you already testified to this, what about the medical history? Was it the car accident?
A: It was her ongoing complaints with the headaches, headaches and neck injury.
Q: And why would the medical history of the headaches and the neck injury and then the medications for anti[-] inflammatory, the Lidoderm, the muscle relaxers, the narcotic pain medication and the Neurontin, why would those cause you to place Avis Lane on a medical hold?
A: Well, it indicates that she is having some degree of pain and certainly taking this much medication raises a suspector of a cognitive problem at work.

(Id. at PagelD.330-31 (emphasis added).)

         Curiously, Fries did not even know what the essential functions of the coordinator position were on September 10 when he recommended the medical hold because he did not receive the job description until two days later. (Id.; ECF Nos. 34-2; 34-18; 34-19.) Instead, Fries simply asserted, among other things, "a suspector of a cognitive problem at work, " and was concerned about Dr. Kapteyn's records, which "indicated that the patient had been seen recently for neck injury sustained in a motor vehicle accident and that she was having ongoing complaints of whiplash, persistent myofascial pain in the neck and shoulder and thoracic outlet syndrome." (ECF No. 34-2 at PageID.332.)

         However, Dr. Kapetyn's records also had indicated Lane passed the MRI, CT, and EMG examinations. On July 25, 2013, Dr. Kapteyn even notes: "There is no mechanical underlying issue that would preclude her, it ...

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