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Hospital employee given chance to show disability bias at trial

California's 6th District Appellate Court recently remanded a case of disability discrimination back to the trial court level. The employee, who argues her firing was due to her struggles with PTSD and severe depression, now has a chance to have the motives of her firing examined by a trial court. 

This case presents several issues commonly encountered by wrongfully terminated employees, including mixed motives for firing and an employer's approach to mental health.

Background of Avery v. Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula

The plaintiff in this case worked as a systems analyst at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula for nearly twenty years prior to losing her job. About a year before she was fired, a supervisor spoke with her about some performance issues that were causing concern. At that time, it seems, the hospital was aware that the plaintiff was struggling with worry over her husband’s health issues. But, the employee insisted she would do better. Her supervisor supplied her with information about an assistance program for employees at the hospital and told her she should consider taking time off to “get her head together.”

When the plaintiff's job performance continued to suffer, the hospital placed her on a performance improvement plan. Eventually, the hospital placed her on a week-long suspension. Shortly after, a clinical psychologist notified the hospital that the plaintiff had a "serious health condition" and should take a medical leave of absence. She was fired just a few days later. 

California law protects employees suffering from mental health issues

Under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), an employer cannot fire an employee because of a medical condition or physical/mental disability. However, determining an employer's motivations in terminating an employee is not always easy. As the court of appeals pointed out, a plaintiff in this kind of case has an opportunity to prove that their disability was a substantial factor in losing their job. 

In this case, the hospital doesn't dispute that the plaintiff was suffering from depression. The court found that performance reports by her supervisor indicate that the supervisor may have known that mental health issues were to blame for the plaintiff's dip in job performance. According to the court's opinion, an email between supervisors about the plaintiff even mentioned a "possible disability". Considering all this, the court found there was enough evidence to warrant allowing the plaintiff to take her disability bias claim to trial.

Source: Avery v. Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula, Calif. Ct. App., No. H042030 (Oct. 15, 2018), full opinion here

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