Pharmacist Alleges Disability Discrimination Was Basis for Termination

Trial court denial of claim Is pursued on appeal based on alleged error by judge when granting summary judgment.

Issue of the Case

Can a pharmacist maintain a federal lawsuit alleging disability discrimination based on both the existence of a disability and retaliation for his disability claims?

Facts of the Case

A pharmacist practicing in a hospital setting in a north central state was terminated from his position. He filed a lawsuit against his former employer and several of its employees, alleging refusal to grant him a reasonable accommodation. The original federal case filing by his attorney included several alleged violations of the pharmacist’s legal rights, including allegations of general harassment and violation of his privacy rights related to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA).

An initial assessment of the case was made by a federal magistrate judge, a judicial officer affiliated with a US District Court who deals with the preliminary assessment of the case. The magistrate judge forwarded several recommendations to the federal trial court judge overseeing the case, including dismissal of all the individual employee defendants. He also recommended dismissal of the allegations of general harassment and the HIPAA claim. The presiding US District Court judge adopted those recommendations.

The hospital’s attorney then made a motion seeking summary judgment on several other claims of the pharmacist in the initial court filing, including those under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); those related to nationality, religious, and sexual orientation discrimination; and claims rooted in the state civil rights laws and human rights act. The magistrate judge had recommended that the hospital’s motion be granted, and the district court judge agreed. Granting a summary judgment motion is appropriate when a judge concludes there is no genuine dispute regarding a remaining material fact, and the party making the motion is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

The pharmacist filed an appeal with the US Court of Appeals, arguing that the trial court judge had erred when granting summary judgment on his claims alleging ADA failure to accommodate, discriminatory termination, and retaliatory termination. He sought to have the lower court’s ruling dismissing his case overturned and the matter returned to the trial court for trial proceedings.

The Ruling

The federal appellate court denied the appeal and affirmed the trial court’s granting of summary judgment for the health system that had employed the pharmacist.

The Court's Reasoning

The appeals court began by noting that the pharmacist had received a diagnosis of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder. The pharmacist claimed the health system knew of these diagnoses when he started working there 15 years earlier. Further, he claimed that irritability and tardiness are symptoms of his diagnoses and that he had been fired because he pursued disability claims. The health system’s response was that the pharmacist was fired after refusing to attend a meeting with his supervisor, a human resources manager, and a union representative.

The court pointed out that to prevail, the pharmacist must demonstrate that a reasonable accommodation is possible because the system knew he was disabled, he had requested an accommodation, the system failed to engage in a flexible and informal interactive process with him about possible accommodations, and his disability could have been reasonably accommodated had that interaction occurred. If the pharmacist could show all 4 things, the burden of proof would shift to the health system “to show that it is unable to accommodate” the request, according to the court.

The pharmacist presented no evidence that the health system did not engage in a flexible and informal interaction about his request to randomly arrive late for work. Next, despite providing a letter about his diagnoses, he did not comply with the request to provide a written accommodation form or other paperwork from his physician. The court pointed out that the pharmacist was aware of those documentation requirements to support an accommodation because he had previously gone through the process to adjust his workstation and work schedule.

The record led the court of appeals to conclude that the breakdown in communication regarding the accommodation was attributable to the pharmacist. He had been on a performance improvement plan because of being absent from work 4 times in a 6-month period and late to work 89 times during the same period. He had also failed to establish a causal connection between his asserting his rights under the ADA and his termination. Finally, the system had documented numerous instances of the pharmacist refusing to process prescription changes and making several offensive comments to other employees of the system.

The appeals court stated clearly that the pharmacist was “fired for misconduct, and no reasonable jury could find that the evidence in this case shows a causal connection between his termination for insubordination and his disability or ADA claims.”

The court cited a prior decision, stating that the “ADA confers no right to be rude.”

The decision of the trial court was affirmed.

About The Author

Joseph L. Fink III, JD, DSC (HON), BSPharm, FAPhA, is a professor of pharmacy law and policy and the Kentucky Pharmacists Association Professor of Leadership at the University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy in Lexington.