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360LAW: Wellstar Beats Ex Worker’s Disability Bias Suit at 11th Circuit

By Danielle Nichole Smith

Law360 (January 9, 2019, 8:21 PM EST) — The Eleventh Circuit on Wednesday refused to revive a former WellStar Health System Inc. worker’s claims that she was wrongfully terminated and retaliated against for having disabilities and taking medical leave, finding that her employer’s belief that she flouted company policy was a valid reason to fire her.

The three-judge panel said in its unpublished opinion that WellStar’s belief that Heather Connelly violated a company policy by coming to work under the influence of undisclosed prescription drugs didn’t have to be right in order for it to be a legitimate reason for her termination. Because Connelly failed to show that WellStar’s explanation for firing her was pretextual, the lower court hadn’t erred in tossing her discrimination claims, the panel said.

The panel said that Connelly didn’t dispute that she was impaired or that she had undisclosed prescription drugs in her system, but rather said her impairment was a result of her disabilities, which included a depressive disorder. She argued that the reason given for the firing was pretextual because the company didn’t check with a doctor to see that the drugs had caused the impairment.

That the company allegedly deviated from policy by not giving her a chance to dispute drug-test results didn’t suggest discrimination, the panel found. And her supervisor’s comments about her mental state and a doctor’s note given to her that morning didn’t show that the company’s explanation for her firing was pretextual, the panel said.

The panel also affirmed the dismissal of Connelly’s claim that the WellStar flouted the Americans with Disability Act by denying her a reasonable accommodation, holding that she never requested one. It didn’t matter that the company had given her time to compose herself after earlier “emotional episodes” since she didn’t ask for such time in this instance, the panel said.

Since Connelly didn’t request an accommodation or show the given reason for her termination was pretextual, her retaliation claims under the ADA and Family and Medical Leave Act also failed, the panel ruled.

Connelly, who worked as a medical assistant at WellStar, originally sued the company in July 2016, alleging that she was retaliated against for taking FMLA leave and fired after the company found out she had disabilities. Connelly described her disabilities as “mental impairments” that included “learning, thinking, concentrating, interacting with others and maintaining emotional stability.”

The company was aware of her disabilities but refused to accommodate them by allowing her to have an emotional support animal or return to work while taking medications to treat her disabilities, Connelly alleged. In February, a federal district court tossed her claims, and Connelly appealed the following month.

Counsel and representatives for the parties didn’t respond Wednesday to requests for comment.

U.S. Circuit Judges Jill A. Pryor, Kevin C. Newsom and R. Lanier Anderson sat on the panel for the Eleventh Circuit.

Connelly is represented by Amanda A. Farahany and Benjamin A. Stark of Barrett & Farahany LLP. WellStar is represented by Charles L. Bachman Jr. of Gregory Doyle Calhoun & Rogers LLC.

The case is Heather Connelly v. Wellstar Health System Inc., case number 18-11217, in the U.S. Appeals Court for the Eleventh Circuit.

–Editing by Aaron Pelc.