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EEOC Sues Wesley Health System / Merit Health Wesley For Disability Discrimination

Company Refused to Accommodate and Fired Employee Because of Arm/Shoulder Injury, Federal Agency Charges

Wesley Health System, LLC, dba Merit Health Wesley, a general medical and surgical hospital located in Hattiesburg, Miss., violated federal law when it refused to provide a reasonable accommodation to an employee with physical impairments and then fired her instead, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charged in a lawsuit it filed on July 25, 2017.

The EEOC's Mobile Local Office investigated the discrimination charge and discovered that Lois Cooper worked as a registered nurse for Merit Health Wesley for approximately two years before injuring her arm and shoulder. When she returned to work after a three-month leave, she presented a release from her doctor releasing her for full duty, with a heavy-lifting restriction. Despite the release, the company refused to allow her to return to work, and did so without first engaging in the legally required interactive process to determine if she was qualified to perform her job. Cooper was called into the human resources office and told that based on the lifting restriction, she could not perform job duties, and was let go.

Later, Cooper applied for an open position as a registered nurse, for which she was qualified, in another of the hospital's clinics. Even though that position required no heavy lifting, the hospital selected another applicant.

Such alleged misconduct violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits employers from discriminating against an employee based on actual or perceived disability. The EEOC filed suit (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Wesley Health System, LLC d/b/a Merit Health Wesley f/k/a Merit Health, Case No. 2:17-CV-126-KS-MTP) in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, Eastern Division after first attempting to resolve the matter through its pre-litigation conciliation process. The agency's lawsuit seeks, among other things, reinstatement; monetary damages, including back pay; compensation for emotional distress; punitive damages; and an injunction to prevent further discrimination.

"Employers cannot fire an employee because of a medical impairment when it does not affect the employee's ability to perform the essential functions of her job," said EEOC Regional Attorney Marsha L. Rucker. "This case should serve as a reminder that employers cannot rely on myths and fears about medical impairments or disabilities in denying qualified individuals employment opportunities. To do so is a clear violation of federal law."

District Director Delner Franklin-Thomas added, "Engaging in the interactive process is not only required by the law, but it makes sense for everyone, because it facilitates an open discussion between the employer and employee about finding a reasonable accommodation that does not impose an undue hardship on anyone."

According to company information, Merit Health Wesley is part of the Merit Health Network, which consists of 12 hospitals throughout Mississippi.

The EEOC's Birmingham District Office has jurisdiction over Alabama, Mississippi (all but 17 counties in the Northern part of Mississippi), and the Florida Panhandle.

The EEOC advances opportunity in the workplace by enforcing federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. More information is available at www.eeoc.gov.