When a case involving an employee’s seizures at work went to a federal appeals court, the employer said it was ensuring safety while the worker said it was a case of disability discrimination.
Andrea Olsen worked as a mammography technician at the Capital Region Medical Center (CRMC) In Missouri. She has epilepsy and suffered numerous seizures at work. CRMC required Olsen to follow protocols and recommended safety standards while she operated the radiographic equipment.
Olsen’s seizures were unpredictable. Her first one at CRMC happened in 2004. During a seizure at work in 2007, Olsen hit her head on a counter and bit her tongue and cheek.
After she suffered more seizures on the job, CRMC placed Olsen on paid administrative leave in August 2008.
While on leave, Olsen consulted a neurologist, who gave her a letter approving her return to work. She resumed her duties. In November 2008, a seizure caused her to fall, resulting in a head wound that required staples.
Once again, after determining that the risk to patients and to herself was too great, CRMC placed her on leave.
The medical center tried a number of accommodations to eliminate environmental triggers to Olsen’s seizures, including:
- removing mold
- investigating cleaning agent ingredients
- having other technicians handle patients who wore heavy perfumes
- installing anti-glare filters on lights
- eliminating scrolling from computers
- covering x-ray films to reduce brightness
- permitting Olsen to wear sunglasses, and
- educating Olsen’s co-workers about epilepsy and how to treat someone who is having a seizure.
Olsen returned to work. Despite the accommodations, she suffered 14 seizures during a 27-month period. Some of the seizures resulted in injuries to Olsen, including stoppage of breathing.
Two seizures happened when Olsen was administering mammograms to patients. One patient complained to CRMC, saying she was concerned for patient safety.
A report by Olsen’s supervisor about the second incident noted that the patient being given a mammogram during Olsen’s seizure “seemed very shaken.” In this incident, the patient caught Olsen before her seizure caused her to drop to the floor.
Next, CRMC placed Olsen in an alternate position as a temporary file clerk. She suffered seizures twice in the clerk position and was eventually placed on unpaid administrative leave.
In 2011, after a change in her medication, Olsen notified CRMC that her seizures were under control and that she had also regained her driver’s license. CRMC offered to reinstate Olsen at her prior rate of pay with full benefits, but Olsen rejected this offer and CRMC eventually terminated her.
Olsen filed a charge of discrimination based on disability among other factors. CRMC moved for summary judgment on the basis that Olsen failed to establish that she was qualified for the mammography technologist position. The medical center said she couldn’t perform the essential functions of her position even with accommodations and that her inability to do so caused a direct threat to herself and others.
A federal district court granted CRMC’s request for summary judgment, finding that Olsen produced no direct evidence of discrimination. She then took her case to a federal appeals court.
Was she a ‘qualified individual?’
Olsen argued the district court shouldn’t have thrown out her case because she is a qualified individual with a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
She said the only accommodation she needed was intermittent leave to rest and recuperate following a seizure. Olsen also said she can perform all her job functions, except during a seizure.
The appeals court noted that to successfully prove an ADA claim, an employee must show she is qualified to perform the essential functions of her job, with or without accommodation.
Given that requirement, the court said Olsen isn’t a “qualified individual” under the ADA:
“An essential function of Olsen’s job included insuring patient safety. Nothing in the record establishes Olsen could adequately perform that function during the indefinite periods in which she was incapacitated.”
Because Olsen wasn’t a qualified individual to perform the job with or without accommodation, the appeals court upheld the district court’s grant of summary judgment to CRMC. The court wrote:
“The hospital need not subject its patients to potential physical and emotional trauma to comply with its duties under the ADA.”
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(Olsen v. Capital Region Medical Center, U.S. Circuit Crt. 8, No. 12-2113, 5/7/13)