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Jan 182013
 

teacher

For those employed in the teaching profession, there is usually a student here or there that knows how to push your buttons and “make your blood pressure soar.”

But for one longtime high school teacher, her rare phobia causes a fear of young children and literally creates physical symptoms such as a dangerous spike in blood pressure and she has taken legal action against school district administration for alleged discrimination.

Maria Waltherr-Willard had been teaching Spanish and French at Mariemont High School in Cincinnati for more than three decades when she was transferred to the district’s middle school in 2009. According to Waltherr-Willard, the seventh and eighth grade students she was forced to work with triggered her phobia compelling her to retire in the middle of the 2010-2011 school year.

She is suing the school district contending that her condition, pedophobia: fear or anxiety around young children, falls under the Americans with Disabilities Act and that the district violated the ADA by transferring her, refusing to allow her return to teaching at the high school level and pressuring her to resign.

School district attorney, Gary Winters, states that she was transferred because the French program was being converted to an online learning program and that the middle school was in need of a Spanish teacher.

But, Walter-Willard believes her transfer was based, at least partially, upon retaliation for comments made to parents and her assistance in fighting the district’s decision to cut French classes in favor of the online course. Her attorney, Bradford Weber, in a July 2011 letter to the EEOC, stated that her transfer was, “the beginning of a deliberate, systematic and calculated effort to squeeze her out of a job.”

Waltherr-Willard, who has no children of her own, has supposedly suffered from the phobia since the 1990s and claims that Mariemont had been sympathetic of her diagnosis and had made previous assurances to her and her lawyer that she would not be required to teach young children.

In addition to being treated for the phobia, the lawsuit states that she also suffers from generalized anxiety disorder, high blood pressure and a gastrointestinal illness: conditions she was apparently managing well prior to her transfer.

Documents filed on her behalf from her medical doctor, psychiatrists and psychologists state that when she is around young children she experiences extreme stress and anxiety with chest pain, vomiting, nightmares and dangerously high blood pressure.

Her doctor said that at times, after the transfer, her blood pressure was so high it posed a stroke risk. Aside from physical symptoms, her doctor has also noted that “the mental anguish suffered is serious and of a nature that no reasonable person could be expected to endure.”

Walter-Willard is seeking past and future pay, compensatory damages, punitive damages and attorney’s fees. Winters, denying her claims, says that her motivation is merely financial. She just wants money. He adds that, “our goal here is to provide the best teachers for students and the best academic experience for students, which certainly wasn’t accomplished by her walking out on them in the middle of the year.”

A federal judge recently dismissed three of the six claims in her suit stating that the school district lived up to its written contract – with the teachers union – and had she not willfully retired, Waltherr-Willard would still be employed.

No ruling was made on the other allegations, awaiting district response and a tentative trial date is scheduled for February 2014.

 

 

Dec 212012
 

600-01195064Do you think what goes on behind closed exam room doors at the doctor’s office is a personal and private matter and confidential information about your health goes no further than the medical records department? Your employer’s policy may dictate otherwise.

Current and former employees of Dillard’s Inc., a national retail chain, found that to be the case. Just this week, the company agreed to pay $2 million and has committed to extensive injunctive relief to resolve a 4-year-old class action disability discrimination lawsuit filed by the EEOC.

The suit challenged the legality of Dillard’s longstanding policy requiring workers to divulge confidential medical information to be approved for sick leave and terminated those who did not feel comfortable revealing such information. Dillard’s allegedly also violated the ADA by firing workers who took more than their allotted sick time.

Originally, the EEOC filed suit in 2008 on behalf of employees, including Corina Scott, a former cosmetics counter employee at an El Centro, California Dillard’s store, who had been required since 2005 to disclose specifics of their medical conditions in order to take sick time. Scott says, “It was humiliating to be fired after expressing my right to keep my medical information private.”

Although they had verifications from doctors ensuring Dillard’s that their absences were indeed medically- related, many of the employees did not feel comfortable sharing the specifics. According to the EEOC, Scott, who was absent just four days, was among those fired in retaliation for refusal to provide details of her medical condition after acting on doctor’s advice not to disclose personal medical information in accordance with the law.

The EEOC alleged that Dillard’s disclosure policy violated the ADA which prohibits employers from making inquiries into the disabilities of their employees unless it is job-related and necessary for the conduct of business and that the company failed to properly determine if additional leave was allowed as accommodation of the employee’s disability under the ADA.

The District Court sided with the EEOC ruling that that Dillard’s policy was facially discriminatory under the ADA and the parties entered into a three-year consent decree. Dillard’s will pay $2 million to identified victims and establish a class fund for currently unidentified victims who suffered similar discrimination during the relevant time period. “I’m grateful to the EEOC for assisting me and the many other workers who were also affected,” says Scott.

Additional persons may be eligible for monetary rewards as part of the settlement and the EEOC expects to identify thousands of victims across the U.S. through the claims notice process designed to distribute the class fund arising from the settlement.

Furthermore, Dillard’s must hire a consultant with ADA experience to review and revise company policies as deemed appropriate; post documentation related to the settlement; implement training for supervisors and staff on the ADA with emphasis on medical enquiries and maximum leave policies; and develop a centralized tracking system for employee complaints involving disability discrimination. Dillard’s will submit annual reports to the EEOC verifying their compliance.

Speaking on behalf of the EEOC, Anna Park, regional attorney for the Los Angeles District Office says, “We commend Dillard’s for agreeing to measures that will prevent and effectively address potential disability discrimination. Policies and practices that permit medical inquiries without proof of a valid business necessity run afoul of the law, often having large-scale consequences.” She also issues a reminder that “all employers should carefully examine their own policies and practices to ensure compliance with federal law.”

Dec 142012
 

medicalchartLong after you have recuperated, a past injury or illness may still hurt when it comes to your employment.

Just ask Michael Matanic, who recently brought a disability bias claim against his former employer, American Tool & Mold of Clearwater, Florida.

An EEOC lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court alleges that although Matanic was in good health and had a recent medical examination showing no physical limitations on his ability to perform the necessary functions of his job as a process engineer, the company violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) when it deemed him disabled and wrongfully terminated him as the result of a six-year old successful back surgery.

According to the EEOC, Matanic had been effectively performing his job without incident or injury for two months while attempting to obtain the outdated medical documents relating to the aforementioned surgery to satisfy the documentation requirements of American Tool & Mold’s allegedly discriminatory post-hire medical screening process.

Requiring an employee to provide documentation for old medical conditions violates the ADA; the ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against any employee or applicant who is disabled, has a record of disability or who is perceived as disabled.

“Employers must refrain from making workplace decisions based on fears or stereotypes about people with real or perceived disabilities,” says EEOC Regional Attorney Robert Weisberg. Not only do such actions violate federal law, “they deny qualified workers the opportunity to be productive members of this nation’s work force,” he adds.

Malcolm Medley, the EEOC’s Miami District Director, reiterates that, “When an employer makes an employment decision based on unfounded speculation about future financial risks associated with a disability or perceived disability, it violates federal law.” Medley notes that the EEOC will continue to “act vigorously to protect the rights of workers.”

Matanic’s suit, filed by the EEOC after attempts to reach a voluntary settlement were unsuccessful, seeks back pay, compensatory and punitive damages and changes to the company’s medical examination criteria among other injunctive relief.

Oct 222012
 

In 1988, Congress designated October as National Disability Employment Awareness Month. This year’s theme is “A Strong Workforce is an Inclusive Workforce: What Can YOU Do?”

To celebrate National Disability Employment Awareness Month, we hosted a special one-hour round table discussion on disability employment. Guests for this round table discussion included Former EEOC Chair Cari Dominguez, Sheridan Walker, Kevin Bradley, James Rodriguez, and Jonathan Hyman.

In this week’s episode of The Proactive Employer, we talk about issues such as diversity and inclusion of individuals with disabilities into the workforce, effectively recruiting within the disabled community, accessibility and accommodation, compliance issues and employers’ legal responsibilities under the ADA, and HR best practices with respect to the employment of individuals with disabilities.

This show will air live on Thursday, October 25th at 3 PM Eastern / 12 Noon Pacific on BlogTalkRadio.

The show will be available for on-demand listening at The Proactive Employer website, on BlogTalkRadio and via iTunes following the broadcast.

 

 

Oct 052012
 

For the past decade, a quadriplegic California attorney has made it his mission to force businesses into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Attorney Scott Johnson, disabled as a result of a hit-and-run drunken driver, has filed thousands of suits against businesses for alleged ADA violations. He has collected what may be millions of dollars in compensation as a result of what he says is his service to other disabled individuals.

While Johnson seems to know his way around the legal system, it appears he hasn’t done so well at winning friends. Many question his motives and suggest that his lawsuits have been filed for personal benefit under the façade of civil rights and the greater good.

At times, Johnson’s suits have been the final breaking point for businesses already struggling in the poor economy. Such is the case for longtime hamburger stand, Ford’s Real Hamburgers, which was recently forced to close its doors after Johnson filed suit and owners were not financially able make costly upgrades to make the restrooms more accessible.

Johnson says that his experience at the restaurant made him feel like a “second class citizen” and that the lack of accessibility caused him, “difficulty, discomfort and embarrassment.”

While Johnson claims to be making a stand for what is right and working towards accessible establishments for all to enjoy, some see it as nothing more than extortion disguised as concern for the disabled.

One longtime Ford’s customer and wheelchair-user, Jerry Sylvia, says that Johnson is not fighting for the disabled. “He’s strictly crusading on his own behalf.”

It seems Johnson’s former employees also question his actions, and in a twist of fate, he now finds himself on the other side of legal battle fighting accusations of sexual harassment, intentionally inflicting emotional distress, and retaliation (read the Complaint here).

Four former legal assistants who worked for Johnson claim to have been forced out of their jobs after finally speaking up about their work environment. Being required to perform inappropriate personal care (including dressing and undressing him and carrying him to and from a hot tub), being subjected to surveillance and being instructed not to interview “men, ugly women or anyone over 30” when hiring new staff are among the allegations listed in the women’s suit.

Additionally, the women claim that Johnson’s charges of humiliation and unequal treatment based on his disability were unfounded and phony since they say, although there may have been ADA violations present, he never set foot in many of the business he sued and that at times they were asked by Johnson to visit businesses, pretend they were customers and seek out potential violations. The four say at times they felt like they were setting up the businesses for costly litigation and acting fraudulently on Johnson’s behalf.

While it is important to keep businesses accountable and to identify and remedy compliance issues and violations, critics of Johnson don’t think one “vigilante” watchdog motivated by supposed personal gain is the solution.