Workplace Class Action Blog

EEOC Signals More Widespread Use Of Summary Judgment Tool To Obtain Relief And Defeat Affirmative Defenses

Posted in EEOC Litigation

By  Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Jennifer A. Riley

On August 7, 2014, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma entered its decision in EEOC v. Midwest Regional Medical Center, LLC, No. CIV-13-789-M (W.D. Okla. Aug. 7, 2014), and granted partial summary judgment in favor of the EEOC.

In a rare partial summary judgment win, the EEOC obtained a ruling as a matter of law that the individual on whose behalf it filed suit was disabled within the meaning of the ADA because she had a record of having skin cancer prior to her termination.

The EEOC also sought summary judgment on the defendant’s affirmative defenses of failure to conciliate and failure to mitigate damages. Although the defendant withdrew its conciliation defense, and the Court found an issue of material fact with respect to its mitigation defense, the motion may foreshadow a shift in tactics by the EEOC.

Once fairly rare, employers litigating with the EEOC should anticipate motions for summary judgment on merits issues, as well as affirmative defenses such as failure to conciliate, and plan their litigation strategy with an eye toward anticipating and defeating such motions.

Factual Background

On July 13, 2013, the EEOC filed suit against Midwest Regional Medical Center, LLC (“MRMC”) on behalf of Janice Withers, a former employee, claiming that the company discriminated against her in violation of the ADA when it terminated her employment.  Id. at 1-2.

On November 17, 2011, Withers was diagnosed with skin cancer.  She informed her supervisor, Susan Milan, of her diagnosis. Id. at 1. Withers started radiation treatments on December 9, 2011, and concluded the treatments on January 5, 2012. At the conclusion of her treatments, her physician noted that “the patient tolerated the procedure well and there was no evidence of recurrent or residual disease at the end of the therapy.” Id. at 2. Withers never returned for a follow up.

Thereafter, Withers was periodically absent from work.  She called in sick on February 9, 2012, and failed to report as scheduled on February 10, 12, 13, 14, 28, and March 2, 3, and 4, 2012. On March 5, 2012, Milan placed Withers on a leave of absence. Id. at 2. Milan issued a letter that stated, “[y]ou must bring a work release without restrictions in order to return to work. . . I expect that you will return to work no later than March 12, 2012.” Id.

On March 9, 2012, MRMC terminated Withers for no call/no show on March 6, 7, and 8, 2012. Id.

MRMC moved for summary judgment on the EEOC’s discrimination claim, and the EEOC moved for partial summary judgment on four issues: (1) whether Withers is a person with a disability under the ADA; (2) whether MRMC terminated Withers because of her disability; (3) whether Withers reasonably mitigated her damages; and (4) whether the EEOC fulfilled its conciliation obligation. Id. at 3.

The Court’s Opinion

The Court entered summary judgment in favor of the EEOC as to whether Withers was a person with a disability within the meaning of the ADA. It held that, although there was a dispute as to whether Withers was actually disabled following the conclusion of her radiation treatments, Withers had a record of having skin cancer and, thus, a “record of disability” under prong two of disability as defined by the ADA. Id. at 5-8. The Court also found a genuine issue of material fact as to whether MRMC terminated Withers because of her disability and as to whether MRMC’s proffered reason for Withers’ discharge – excessive absenteeism – was worthy of belief. It held that the “temporal proximity” between when Withers was placed on a leave of absence (March 5, 2012) and when she was discharged (March 9, 2012) “could lead to an inference of discriminatory intent.” Id. at 9-10. Further, the company failed to identify who actually made the decision to put Withers on a leave of absence, and it ostensibly required Withers to call in every day after it put her on a leave of absence, a requirement that is inconsistent with MRMC’s leave policy. Id. at 11-12.

The EEOC also moved for summary judgment on MRMC’s affirmative defenses of failure to conciliate and failure to mitigate.  MRMC withdrew its failure to conciliate defense. Id. at 3 n.2. The Court found a genuine issue of material fact as to MRMC’s failure to mitigate defense because Withers worked only part time following her termination from MRMC. Id. at 13.

Implications For Employers

Although the EEOC was successful in EEOC v. Midwest Regional Medical Center in obtaining partial summary judgment only as to whether its claimant was “disabled” within the meaning of the ADA, its attempt to win its claims and knock out MRMC’s affirmative defenses on summary judgment may foreshadow more widespread use of this litigation tactic by the EEOC. Employers litigating against the EEOC should plan their litigation strategy with this in mind and take care to position themselves to anticipate and defeat such motions.

Readers can also find this post on our EEOC Countdown blog here.