Fourth Circuit: Employer Did Not Violate ADA When it Fired a Registered Nurse Who Suffered From Drug and Alcohol Addiction

When a Registered Nurse’s supervisor called her a “drunk” and fired her, despite being aware of the nurse’s previous drug and alcohol addiction, the nurse brought a discriminatory discharge claim against the hospital pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act, as amended by the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (the “Act”).  The Act prohibits an employer from discriminating against a qualified individual on the basis of that person’s disability.  The Act defines a “disability” not just as a current physical or mental impairment that limits one or more major life activities, but also as a past record of such an impairment or when a person is “regarded as” having such an impairment.  The Registered Nurse argued that the Hospital “regarded” or perceived her as having a drug and alcohol disability, and therefore wrongfully terminated her in violation of the Act.  The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals both disagreed with the nurse, finding that she failed to prove that she was a “qualified individual” under the Act, and granted summary judgment to the employer.

            The case is Harris v. Reston Hospital Center, LLC, and involves a nurse who attempted suicide on two occasions by overdosing on prescription narcotics that she diverted from her employer, the hospital.  The hospital nonetheless accommodated the nurse by allowing her to maintain her employment while undergoing intervention treatment.  Even when the nurse completed treatment and was prohibited from administering narcotics to her patients, the hospital further accommodated her by assigning a second nurse to administer the narcotics.  On the date of her dismissal, several co-workers reported that the nurse was acting oddly, including slurring her words, not responding appropriately to questions, staring blankly at a computer monitor with a screensaver rather than entering patient information, and not responding to patient calls for assistance.  The Court held that based on this, and other warnings and suspensions she received during her employment (including her failure to accurately administer medications and failure to call in sick pursuant to hospital policy), the nurse had not met her burden of proving that she was a “qualified individual” under the Act.

            A qualified individual under the Act is one who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position.  The Court stated that the essential function of the nurse’s position was to be within the surgical unit of the hospital and to care for and treat patients, including safely and accurately administering medication to patients.  During the nurse’s own deposition, she admitted that on the date of her termination she felt woozy and nauseated and did not believe that she could safely administer medication.  Based on this and the other evidence from trial, the Court agreed with the district court that the nurse had failed to demonstrate that she could perform the essential functions of her job, and therefore was not a “qualified individual” covered by the Act.  As the Court stated, the nurse’s employment record was “riddled with repeated absences stretching over several years and personnel evaluations demonstrating barely satisfactory-level performance.”  In a significant decision for employers, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s entry of summary judgment on behalf of the hospital.

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