By Brandi O. Brown, J.D.
Demoting a nurse manager who was just released from the hospital after a suicide attempt and failing to respond to her ADA suit has supported a default judgment against a health care employer for $172,131. Included in the final award by the federal court in Kansas was $25,000 in punitive damages, based on the employer’s "callous conduct," which the court found especially problematic given that the parties were medical personnel (Mathiason v. Aquinas Home Health Care, Inc.
, May 16, 2016, Lungstrum, J.).
Demotion after suicide attempt.
Just over a year after she was hired by the health care facility, the nurse manager was hospitalized after an attempted suicide brought on by deep depression and anxiety. Upon discharge, she was ordered to attend three sessions of outpatient therapy per week for four weeks. When she requested leave to attend those sessions, her supervisor allegedly responded by scheduling a meeting at the employee's home. During the meeting, the supervisor asked whether the employee's hospitalization had anything to do with her work and was told that it did not. The supervisor then gave the employee the choice of either quitting or taking a demotion, stating that the employer did not want to "add more pressure." In spite of the employee's excellent track record of performance, the supervisor questioned her ability to do her job, asking: "If you can't manage yourself, how can you manage others?"
Faced with this ultimatum, the employee accepted the demotion. Later that day, the supervisor emailed the entire staff and informed them that the employee had been out of work because of "personal issues" and that she elected not to return to the nurse manager position. Although the employee's need for leave for outpatient therapy was of limited duration, the supervisor never suggested that the demotion would be temporary.
Given the allegedly coerced demotion, the supervisor's discriminatory remarks, and the supervisor's email to the entire staff, the employee felt she could not return to work. She filed suit alleging violations of the ADA and mailed the summons and complaint to its registered agent of record. The mailing was returned and service was then made upon the Kansas Secretary of State. The Secretary also served the summons on the employer's registered agent. The employee filed an application for a clerk's entry of default and finally filed a motion for default judgment and requested a hearing on damages. At the hearing, which the employer did not attend, she presented evidence of her damages, attorneys’ fees, and costs.
Default judgment granted.
After making findings of fact and conclusions of law, the court granted the motion for default judgment. It found that the employee was entitled to damages due to the employer's discrimination based on her disability and its failure to accommodate her disability. The court found that her evidence supported a conclusion that the employer perceived her depression and anxiety as a substantial limitation on her ability to work and discriminated against her on that basis. Rather than discussing her need for an accommodation for the four-week period in which she was scheduled for outpatient therapy, the employer demoted her and constructively discharged her.
Entitled to back pay and front pay.
Based on these violations, the employee was entitled to damages, including compensatory and punitive damages, back pay and front pay, and attorneys' fees and costs. She provided sworn testimony and an estimation of her back pay damages, including her efforts to mitigate damages. Because she would have earned more had she remained employed by the defendant than she earned in her new job, the court awarded her the estimated losses she suffered up until the date of the hearing, totaling over $54,000, along with prejudgment interest of just less than $8,000. The court also awarded front pay for a period of three years, totaling almost $25,000 after subtracting mitigation earnings, based on evidence presented by the employee that she would have remained employed there for a minimum of three years.
Compensatory and punitive damages.
The employee was also awarded $25,000 in compensatory damages based on evidence that she suffered humiliation, stress, and depression after the end of her employment, which followed immediately upon her attempted suicide and hospitalization for depression and anxiety. The court added to that an award of $25,000 to account for its determination that the employer intentionally discriminated against her in spite of its awareness of the law's prohibitions against discrimination and its requirement that employers provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities. The statement made by the supervisor when the employee was demoted, asking how she could manage others if she could not manage herself, was especially problematic given the supervisor's awareness that the employee had just been hospitalized for attempted suicide. “Such callous conduct, especially by medical personnel, supports a finding of malice in this instance,” the court explained.
Finally, the court concluded that the employee was entitled to reasonable attorneys' fees and costs and granted the requested amount of $35,000 for fees and $483 for costs. The court also found that an award of post-judgment interest would be appropriate.