“Problem” Employee Presents Enough Evidence of Disability Discrimination to Survive Summary Judgment

In Lyman v. New York and Presbyterian Hospital, decided July 14, 2014, the Southern District of New York denied defendants’ motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s disability discrimination and retaliation claims.

This decision illustrates that “[b]ecause direct evidence of an employer’s discriminatory intent will rarely be found, affidavits and depositions must be carefully scrutinized for circumstantial proof which, if believed, would show discrimination.”

Plaintiff claimed that she was terminated in response to her request for medical leave to address a degenerative hip condition. The court held that issues of fact required denial of defendants’ motion.

As to whether the plaintiff was disabled, the court rejected defendants’ argument that a series of vacation photos showed no impairment. In addition, it cited medical evidence that plaintiff suffered from a hip condition, evidence of plaintiff’s private medical consultations, and plaintiff’s deposition testimony regarding the pain she suffered which inhibited her ability to walk, sit, or stand.

As to whether plaintiff’s termination was motivated by her disability, the court found fact questions as to whether defendants knew of plaintiff’s disability, and whether defendants decided to terminate plaintiff before being notified of her disability.

Defendants presented evidence that it terminated plaintiff for legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons, such as “negative commentary on her interpersonal skills and management style”, personal conflicts between plaintiff and co-workers and vendors, and plaintiff’s “inappropriate behavior.”

While a “close question”, the court found that plaintiff presented evidence of pretext, and agreed with plaintiff’s argument that defendants “paper[ed] the record to justify firing Plaintiff in anticipation of her request for medical leave.” It held:

In sum, Defendants have sought to present a history of these events in which Plaintiff was a problematic employee throughout her tenure whose eventual firing was inevitable. Yet many of the facts to which they point in support of that account are far from the straightforward episodes of bad behavior they contend. It is perhaps most troubling that Defendants’ version of Plaintiff’s performance during 2007 and 2008 seems to be at least thrown into serious question by the documentary evidence. Given all the above, a jury could reasonably conclude that Defendants mischaracterized Plaintiff’s work history and find that the nondiscriminatory basis Defendants offer now for terminating Plaintiff’s employment is an after-the-fact pretext.

Furthermore, plaintiff provided sufficient evidence “that the true reason for her firing was discrimination against her plans to seek medical leave for her disability.” In particular, plaintiff argued that she “told Defendants on several occasions that she intended to seek medical leave after completing [a] major construction project” and that “[o]nly after this event did Defendants begin to contrive a record of her work performance that provided an apparently neutral justification for her termination.”

The court also found issues of fact on plaintiff’s retaliation and aiding-and-abetting liability claims, but dismissed her retaliation claims arising from post-employment discrimination.