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Easter v. Arkansas Children's Hospital

United States District Court, E.D. Arkansas, Western Division

October 3, 2018




         Linda Easter worked for the Arkansas Children's Hospital as a specialty nurse in the Neurosciences Center until October 3, 2016. Her job duties involved speaking on the phone with patients, insurance companies, and doctors. The hospital terminated her after she had been on leave for more than twelve weeks due to issues with her esophagus. She alleges that the hospital terminated her because of her race and because of her disability in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The hospital has moved for summary judgment.

         A court should enter summary judgment if the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, demonstrates that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249-50, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2511, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986); Torgerson v. City of Rochester, 643 F.3d 1031, 1042 (8th Cir. 2011) (en banc). A genuine dispute of material fact exists only if the evidence is sufficient to allow a jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249, 106 S.Ct. at 2511.

         When Easter was three years old, she swallowed poison, which damaged her esophagus. She had a tracheotomy until she was nine years old but did not experience significant issues until 2004. In 2004, she developed cold-like symptoms and trouble swallowing. Easter underwent forty different surgeries to correct these issues between 2004 and her termination. Easter typically scheduled the surgeries to allow her to recover over the weekend and return to work on Monday. Three surgeries, however, required extended time off. After a surgery in 2015, Easter took off from May through sometime in August. At some point after the 2015 surgery, Easter developed a persistent cough. She had surgery on July 1, 2016, to address the cough and was scheduled to be on leave pursuant to the Family Medical Leave Act through September 1, 2016. Easter's cough persisted and she was unable to return to work on September 1.

         Easter then requested and was granted an additional week of personal leave. On September 8, 2016, her doctor sent the hospital a note stating that Easter would be “unable to perform her current line of work for an indefinite amount of time” due to “uncontrollable coughing spells” that were “refractory to any medical treatment.” Document #8-1 at 71. Easter exhausted her FMLA leave on September 26, 2016. On September 30, the hospital asked Easter for an update on her medical status. Easter reported that she was still coughing and had fallen three times due to medication she was taking. Easter requested that the hospital allow her additional leave until it was determined when she would be able to return to work, presumably after consulting with a throat specialist on October 20. On October 3, 2016, Terri Songer, Easter's supervisor at the hospital, sent Easter a termination letter, which stated in part:

Our records indicate your twelve (12) weeks of Family and Medical Leave were exhausted as of September 26, 2016. Your doctor has indicated that you have an ongoing need to be off of work due to your personal medical condition; however, we must release your position so we can hire a replacement. The effective date of your termination will be October 3, 2016.

Document #8-1 at 73.

         Easter says that before the hospital terminated her, she requested another job in which her coughing episodes would not interfere. She says that she also requested to be placed on unpaid leave until she could see the throat specialist on October 20. In her deposition, Easter testified that when she requested to be placed on unpaid leave, she did not know how much time she would need off. Easter also testified that she did not see marked improvement in her condition until two or three weeks after seeing the throat specialist. She further testified that the throat specialist cleared her to return to work but she did not have a note from the specialist. After Easter filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and spoke with an investigator, the investigator reported the following on December 8, 2016:

[Easter] is still having gastroparisis, allergens, and other ongoing issues. [Easter] still has irritable larynex [sic] syndrom. I asked her if she thought the doctors would say she could return to work and she says they haven't said anything about it, but she thinks she could. [Easter] hasn't been released.

Document #8-1 at 74.

         Easter argues that the hospital violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when it terminated her without accommodating her condition. The act prohibits employers from discriminating “against a qualified individual on the basis of disability in regard to job application procedures, the hiring, advancement, or discharge of employees, employee compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.” 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). Discrimination under the act includes “not making reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability who is an applicant or employee.” Id. § 12112(b)(5).

         The McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework applies to Easter's disability discrimination claim. See Burchett v. Target Corp., 340 F.3d 510, 516 (8th Cir. 2003). This framework requires Easter to first establish a prima facie case by demonstrating that (1) she has a disability, or the employer thinks she has a disability, within the meaning of the act; (2) she is qualified to perform the essential functions of her job, with or without reasonable accommodation; and (3) she has suffered an adverse employment action as a result of her disability. Id. The second element requires Easter to show that she was qualified to perform the job, which involves a two step inquiry. Id. at 517. First, Easter must show that she meets the necessary prerequisites for the job, and, second, Easter must demonstrate that she can perform the essential functions of her job, with or without reasonable accommodation. Id. Easter need only “make a facial showing that reasonable accommodation is possible.” See Fjellestad v. Pizza Hut of Am., Inc., 188 F.3d 944, 950 (8th Cir. 1999).

         Assuming that Easter's medical condition rendered her disabled within the meaning of the act, she cannot make the required showing under the second element. Easter does not dispute that she was unable to perform the essential functions of her job without a reasonable accommodation. She argues instead that she could have performed the essential functions of her job if the hospital had accommodated her condition by allowing her to be placed on unpaid leave, “to handle the doctor's refills, or to perform some other job in the neurology clinic, until she was able to get a handle on the coughing.” Document #20 at 13. It is undisputed that talking on the phone was an essential function of Easter's job.

         Easter's request for additional leave amounted to a request for indefinite leave. She did not know when she would be able to return and perform essential functions of her job. And she asked that the hospital refrain from taking any action until she saw a throat specialist and it could be determined when she would be able to return to work. Meanwhile, the hospital had a note from her doctor stating that Easter was “unable to perform her current line of work for an indefinite amount of time.” Indefinite leave is not a reasonable accommodation. Dick v. Dickinson State Univ., 826 F.3d 1054, 1061 (8th Cir. 2016), reh'g denied (Aug. 15, 2016); see also 1 Barbara T. Lindemann & Paul Grossman, Employment Discrimination Law 895 (4th ed. ...

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