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A Pennsylvania long-term care provider is facing a lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act even though the plaintiff, a fired employee, may not have a qualifying medical condition.

The case, according to two legal experts, “provides a jarring illustration of why words matter — and a cautionary tale for employers on the impact that comments about employees’ health and medical conditions may have in disability discrimination claims.” 

Marilyn Higdon and George Reeves III, on behalf of Fisher Phillips, described the case of Dana Rice-Smith, a nurse at Misericordia Convalescent Home in East York, PA, in an article for JD Supra.

When applying for the position, they reported, Rise-Smith told the person who would become her direct supervisor that she had multiple sclerosis, and she requested accommodation — specifically, that she be allowed to use a cane at work. Rice-Smith was hired.

She subsequently “reportedly suffered an on-the-job injury and began receiving workers’ compensation benefits,” the attorneys wrote. “She claimed the injury aggravated her multiple sclerosis. None of her workers’ compensation documents referenced her having multiple sclerosis, however.”

Rice-Smith’s employment later was terminated due to multiple alleged disciplinary issues unrelated to her purported medical condition (“using her phone while working, attending to personal matters during work time, abusing her authority, making improper scheduling changes, instigating confrontations, insubordination, and acting to disrupt patient care and business operations”).

She filed a lawsuit against the nursing home under the ADA and other state and federal laws, saying that her supervisor had expressed concerns that MS was affecting her ability to work.

The court tossed the lawsuit’s non-ADA-related claims, finding that the employment termination was legitimate for disciplinary reasons. The ADA claim can move forward, however, the court ruled, even though the employer does not have proof that Rise-Smith actually has MS. Her supervisor’s comments “were sufficient to undermine the facility’s argument that the infractions were the true reason for the decision,” Fisher Phillips wrote. 

“At this stage of the game, the court views all evidence submitted in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Which means that even if the employer and employee disagree about what was said in a particular exchange, the court will always assume the employee’s version is correct for the purpose of deciding on a motion,” Higdon and Reeves wrote.

The attorneys advised that employees be careful about sharing personal health information and that managers be trained on how to handle discussions, to understand the potential effects of their comments, and to not share private information about other employees.