In October 2019, we discussed increased enforcement efforts by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in the healthcare industry.  Then in February 2020, we discussed the EEOC’s lawsuit against Yale New Haven Hospital for alleged Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) violations. The EEOC’s increased enforcement in the healthcare industry continues, as demonstrated by a recent settlement with St. Vincent Hospital, in Santa Fe New MexicoThe EEOC’s lawsuit against St. Vincent was based on alleged violations of the ADA, which prohibits discrimination against qualified disabled individuals (as defined in the ADA) in all aspects of employment.  Under the ADA, employers must also provide reasonable accommodations to qualified individuals with a disability unless doing so would be an undue hardship. 

In August 2019, the EEOC sued St. Vincent (which does business as Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center) for violations of the ADA.  According to the EEOC, Asheley Coriz, who is deaf, was hired as a Histology Technician in St. Vincent’s laboratory in February 2018.  St. Vincent’s Human Resources department granted Ms. Coriz’s request to use an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter during her job orientation and onboarding process.  Following onboarding, Ms. Coriz faced difficulties with her immediate supervisor related to her disability.  According to the Complaint, Ms. Coriz had to repeatedly remind her supervisor – Mr. Luna – to face her when he provided instructions and training.  Mr. Luna also refused to repeat the training procedures for Ms. Coriz.  In response, Ms. Coriz requested written procedures, and this request was also refused according to the Complaint.  

Ms. Coriz alleged that Mr. Luna became hostile and frequently yelled at her.  Once, Mr. Luna allegedly yelled, “didn’t you f***ing hear me, I’m tired of telling you the same thing.”  Ms. Coriz sought help from Mr. Luna’s supervisor, Director Randall Schulz.  In response to Ms. Coriz’s concerns, Director Schulz transferred Ms. Coriz to a different department as a Histology Assistant.  Ms. Coriz’s new position required her to use the telephone, however, and Ms. Coriz could not use a regular telephone due to her disability.  Ms. Coriz requested an accommodation requiring St. Vincent to install a Video Relay Service (VRS) telephone system that would allow Ms. Coriz to make and receive telephone calls.  The EEOC noted that “no additional purchase of equipment was necessary,” as Ms. Coriz owned a VRS system.  But St. Vincent provided Ms. Coriz no accommodations aside from the ASL interpreter during orientation, according to the Complaint.

According to the EEOC, in April 2018, Mr. Luna, Director Schulz, and Director Mary Jo Metzger (Director Schulz’s manager) scheduled a meeting with Ms. Coriz to review her performance and to set a timeline for her to meet performance goals.  When Ms. Coriz requested an ASL interpreter for the meeting, Director Schulz canceled the meeting so he could meet with HR about the accommodation request.  The next day, Director Schulz informed Ms. Coriz she was placed on paid administrative leave, according to the Complaint.  On April 20, 2018, St. Vincent terminated Ms. Coriz’s employment citing poor performance.  The EEOC noted that St. Vincent never provided written performance goals to Ms. Coriz, despite citing poor performance for the termination. 

St. Vincent settled the EEOC’s lawsuit and agreed to pay $98,000 in back pay and compensatory damages.  St. Vincent also agreed to revise its policies, provide training, and report to the EEOC any complaints of disability discrimination during the consent decree’s three-year term.   The decree also makes the supervisor who allegedly discriminated against Ms. Coriz ineligible for rehire.

All employers should try to reduce discriminatory acts.  Policies should be reviewed, updated, and used.  Training should be performed on employment laws.  Managers, especially first-line supervisors, should be familiar with employment laws, handling complaints, and handling accommodation requests.  Notably, many of the EEOC’s allegations against St. Vincent stemmed from actions (or inactions) by the first-line supervisor, Mr. Luna.  

Repeated violations in the healthcare industry have caused the EEOC to take notice, as evidence by Regional Attorney Mary Jo O’Neill’s statements to the Albuquerque Journal: “We see a pattern of health care providers engaging in discriminatory violations, and that they are some of worst violators of ADA.”  Healthcare employers should expect more enforcement actions and greater scrutiny by the EEOC.  

The attorneys at Chilivis Grubman assist businesses of all types and sizes in connection with employment-related litigation, as well as investigations by the EEOC.  If you need assistance with such a matter, please contact us today.