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Jan 182013


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.

Nov 092012

image source: WIS TV

Is some flexible scheduling to seek medical treatment too much to ask of your employer?

One disabled Marine has filed suit against his former employer, New Life Fitness World, alleging that they failed to make reasonable accommodations and fired him because he is a disabled veteran.

Jonathan Brown claims that new management refused to allow him to make up work time missed to attend Veterans Affairs appointments to treat a war injury and subsequently fired him giving “disabled veteran” as the reason on the termination paperwork.

Brown returned from a deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and left the military after an eye injury affecting both eyes prevented him from continuing on in the military. Although he receives treatment from the William Jennings Bryan Dom VA hospital in Columbia on a near-weekly basis as military doctors try to diagnose and treat his condition that causes blurriness and shaking in the eyes, Brown had worked successfully for nearly two years as a manager at the gym’s Charter Oak Road location.

According to Brown, “The VA is just like the military. If you miss an appointment, you might not get another one to actually let them help you with your problem.” Making up for time missed to attend appointments was not an issue when Brown began employment at New Life Fitness World and for the time that he worked under General  Manager Jody Parks since the two had worked out an advanced agreement regarding the matter.

According to Parks, the gym was aware of his injuries upon hire and the flexibility to make up time missed for appointments was set up in advance not after the fact. Parks says of Brown, “He was a great guy. Good employee.” He adds that Brown was an asset at the Lexington location because of the large military membership there.

But, it seems, when new management took over, they were not on board with the arrangement. On July 30, Jonathan Moreno called Brown into his office to discuss his VA medical appointments. During the meeting, Brown referred to the arrangement he had worked out with his previous manager and stated that he was willing to work nights and weekends to make up lost time, but apparently Moreno wouldn’t hear of it. “His mind was made up by the time he was even walking into the building,” says Brown.

Moreno allegedly told Brown that it just was not going to work out and that he was firing him because he is a disabled veteran. Supposedly Moreno would not allow any further discussion.

When questioned about the firing, Moreno stated that Brown was let go due to customer service complaints and failure to meet sales goals. Interestingly, Brown’s final pay check shows bonuses paid for meeting production, sales and membership goals. Even more interesting is that and included in the Lexington County court filings is Brown’s “Employment Status Change” form which shows the reason for his termination on July 31 st as “disabled veteran.”

According to Brown’s attorney, James Smith, “I have not seen a case that is so spelled out in black and white and is so clear a violation of the law.” Smith, an Iraqi War veteran himself notes that employers are required to make “reasonable accommodations” for employees with disabilities and argues that Brown’s willingness to make up the missed time was fair to both sides. “Those are reasonable accommodations, which must be made by an employer and they just need to understand that.”

“Apparently they don’t,” he says.

Oct 252012

This week’s Safe For Work Video looks at customized employment arrangements and integrating individuals with disabilities into the workforce.

In this video published by the Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy, customized employment arrangements are discussed from the perspective of employers. Various employers talk about how their businesses have benefited by including individuals with disabilities into their organizations through customized employment arrangements.

Take a look at the video, and be sure to join us this afternoon at 3PM Eastern for The Proactive Employer Radio Show - we host a round table discussion focusing on the employment of individuals with disabilities.