Eleventh Circuit Decides Employer Lacked Knowledge of Employee’s Disability

A nursing home employee, who was pursuing her employer for multiple forms of discrimination and retaliation, lost in her effort to revive her disability discrimination claim on appeal. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that an employer’s mere knowledge that an employee had visited a doctor and that the doctor had advised the patient she could not return to work “until further notice” was not enough to prove that the employer knew the employee had a disability.

The employee, Portia Surtain, worked at Hamlin Place of Boynton Beach, a nursing home in South Florida. During her employment, Surtain submitted a request for medical leave. The employer, aware that Surtain had visited a doctor for “unknown health reasons” and that the doctor had advised her to stay away from work until further notice, terminated the employee.

Surtain sued, asserting that the employer violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by firing her after it learned of her disability, and that it violated the Family and Medical Leave Act by firing her after she made a request for medical leave. The trial court rejected all of the employee’s claims, and she appealed.

If you believe that your employer has discriminated against you based upon your disability, there are several things the ADA requires you to show in order to pursue your claim. You must show that you have a disability, that you are a “qualified individual” under the law, and that your employer discriminated against you because of your disability. Surtain’s court filings only established that the employer knew about Surtain’s doctor visit and the doctor’s advice to refrain from going to work indefinitely. Those pleadings were not enough to prove that the employer knew the employee had a disability. Without knowledge of a disability, the employer could not possibly have terminated Surtain because of her disability.

The FMLA prohibits employers from interfering with an employee’s efforts to assert her rights under the statute, or retaliating based upon an assertion of those rights. An employee seeking to pursue an FMLA claim must establish that she is a qualifying employee. To qualify as an employee, you must have worked for that employer for at least 12 months, have worked at least 1,250 hours in the previous year, and work at (or within 75 miles of) a site where the employer employs at least 50 employees.

Surtain’s FMLA case faltered because she neglected to include assertions regarding how many hours she worked and how many employees Hamlin employed at the nursing home. Without these facts, the FMLA case was not viable. However, the appeals court determined that Surtain should be allowed to pursue her interference claim if she amended her complaint to include those relevant pieces of information.

The ruling in Surtain’s case is useful for Georgia employers and employees, offering a guideline for what amount of information an employer must have in order to show that the employer had knowledge of the employee’s disability. For knowledgeable advice and representation regarding your disability discrimination case, talk to the hard-working Georgia disability discrimination attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert. Whether you’re an employee or employer, our knowledgeable attorneys have the experience and skills to help you.

To speak with one of our lawyers about your case, call 404-873-8048.

More blog posts:

Federal Court in Georgia Dismisses Employee’s Lawsuit for Discrimination, Retaliation, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, March 12, 2015

Tennessee Staffing Agency and Recycling Center Sued by EEOC for Alleged Disability Discrimination, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, March 4, 2015

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