Case of the Month: May 2009

Mower County Seniors, Inc. to pay $35,000 in settlement of charge of disability discrimination, reprisal

Case 49604, closed 4-8-09

Charging Party
Kerri Ellegard (formerly known as Kerri Stevenson)
Austin, MN

Mower County Seniors, Inc., 400 3rd Ave NE
Austin, MN 55912

What the Charging Party Alleged

When she began her job as an administrative assistant, Kerri Ellegard told her employer's executive director that, due to her disability, she would need to have her duties clearly explained, written down, and would need to ask questions to make sure she understood her employer's expectations. But the executive director proved to be impatient with her employee's communication needs. "How can I get through to you? Why don’t you understand?" she would say. At one point she called Ellegard's husband, explaining that Ellegard did not remember what she would tell her. Adding to Ellegard's distress, the vice president of the organization's board of directors also made negative comments, including, "What do I need to do? Draw you a picture?"

Ellegard sought a reasonable accommodation, and arranged for two vocational rehabilitation experts to meet with the executive director. But when they arrived at her workplace, the executive director went to lunch rather than meet with them. After recommendations for an accommodation were provided by telephone, the executive director allegedly stated that it would not be possible to accommodate Ellegard.

In a private meeting several days later, the executive director became angry, criticized Ellegard's work, and told her she was good at some things but incapable of others. "You can't rehabilitate someone who can't be rehabilitated," the executive director declared. That same day, Ellegard was fired.

In a charge filed with the Department of Human Rights, Ellegard alleged that her disability had led to unequal treatment, and ultimately, to her termination.

What the Department’s Investigation Found

In answering the charge, Mower County Seniors, Inc. argued that it had terminated Ellegard because of several performance deficiencies, including insubordination. Several weeks prior to Ellegard's termination, her supervisor had given her an oral warning about "being disobedient to authority," the respondent claimed.

In investigating the charge, the Department of Human Rights determined that Ellegard was a qualified disabled person under the Human Rights Act, and that her employer had been made aware of her disability (a hearing impairment and a traumatic brain injury). The employer was therefore obligated under the Act to engage in an interactive process with the employee to determine an appropriate reasonable accommodation. The employer failed to engage in this process, and had instead terminated the employee within days of receiving recommendations from vocational rehabilitation experts. Although the respondent had claimed Ellegard was insubordinate, the department noted that documentation of the insubordination was lacking, and that the greater weight of evidence suggested that the respondent's claim of insubordination was a pretext for disability discrimination. In addition, the timing of the charging party's termination "gives rise to the inference that this action was carried out in retaliation for requesting reasonable accommodation," the department determined. The department found probable cause to believe that Ellegard had been discriminated against in employment based on her disability, and subjected to reprisal for requesting accommodation, which is also a violation of the Human Rights Act.

In a settlement negotiated with the Department of Human Rights, Mower County Seniors, Inc. agreed to pay the charging party $35,000, representing $15,000 for lost wages and $20,000 for emotional distress. It also agreed to review its existing policies or develop new policies addressing its obligation to provide reasonable accommodations under the Human Rights Act, and to provide at least one hour of training on fair employment practices for its managers and human resources personnel. It denies that it violated the Human Rights Act and admits no wrongdoing.

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