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Medical laboratory employee alleges healthcare system discriminated based on her medical condition, failed to accommodate her disability, then retaliated and created hostile working conditions

What is a clinical laboratory’s obligation when an employee is infected with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus and does not make a speedy recovery? Medical laboratory executives should ponder this question now that a California hospital system is being sued by a 33-year laboratory employee who was terminated after missing too many workdays due to “long-haul” COVID-19 illness.

According to court documents obtained by Dark Daily, clinical laboratory scientist (CLS) Kathleen Hamada filed a lawsuit March 22 in Fresno County Superior Court alleging Community Hospitals of Central California (parent company of Community Medical Centers in Fresno, Calif., where Hamada worked):

  • Discriminated based on her medical condition,
  • Failed to accommodate her disability,
  • Retaliated in violation of medical leave laws,
  • Created hostile working conditions, and
  • Wrongfully terminated her, among other charges.

Hamada’s attorney, Amanda Whitten JD of Bryant Whitten LLP in Fresno, told The Fresno Bee that “ [California] state law allows an employee to take up to 12 weeks of leave a year to deal with a serious medical condition,” and that, “It’s also illegal for an employer to retaliate against an employee for requesting and taking that leave.”

Michelle Von Tersch, Senior Vice President of Communications and Legislative Affairs at Community Medical Centers, told the Fresno Bee in a statement that she could not comment on the pending litigation. But she added, “During the COVID-19 pandemic, Community Medical Centers expanded employee assistance programs, including extended time off for employees to care for themselves and their loved ones.”

Community Medical Centers (CMC) is a not-for-profit healthcare system in the greater Fresno area. It operates four hospitals and a cancer institute, and several long-term care, outpatient, and other healthcare facilities. CMC has more than 8,800 employees, according to a hospital fact sheet.

Was Hamada Wrongfully Discharged?

The lawsuit states Hamada worked for Community Hospitals of Central California as a clinical laboratory scientist from July 1, 1987, until Oct. 13, 2020, when she was “wrongfully discharged.” In the filing, Hamada’s attorney noted that Hamada received “good performance reviews and salary increases and was not subject to discipline for her job performance” during her more than 30 years of employment.

After Hamada became sick with COVID-19 in mid-April 2020, she followed her doctor’s recommendation and went on medical leave for roughly six weeks. However, when she returned to work in June 2020, she “still suffered from the effects of the coronavirus” and was considered a “long-haul” COVID-19 patient, the lawsuit states. As a result, her healthcare provider suggested she request “intermittent medical leave” due to her continued illness and underlying medical conditions, including diabetes, cardio-pulmonary disease, and traumatic brain injury.

Plaintiff Alleges Threats and Intimidation

The lawsuit contends Hamada’s request for additional medical leave resulted in her supervisor telling her, “you better not” file the request. In addition to this threat, the plaintiff alleges she was shunned by her supervisor and coworkers and then subjected to discipline based on attendance when she was absent from work due to her medical condition. In October, she was terminated due to violating the “employer’s attendance policy,” the lawsuit states.

The complaint outlines eight causes of action:

  • Discrimination based on medical condition, disability, or perceived disability.
  • Failure to accommodate a disability.
  • Failure to prevent discrimination and discrimination based on medical condition, disability, or perceived disability.
  • Retaliation for requesting accommodation.
  • Retaliation for exercising rights under the California Family Rights Act.
  • Wrongful termination in violation of public policy.
  • Defamation.

The California Family Rights Act provides most employees in California with the right to take up to 12 weeks of leave from work to care for themselves or family members with a serious health condition or bond with a new child.

Hamada is requesting a jury award for:

  • general damages above the jurisdictional minimum of the Court,
  • special damages,
  • punitive damages,
  • interest on lost earnings,
  • deferred compensation and employee benefits,
  • reinstatement of her job, and
  • reimbursement of attorneys’ fees.

Should Long-Haul COVID-19 Be Considered a Disability?

David Fram, JD, Director of ADA services with the National Employment Law Institute (NELI) in Golden, Colo., told the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) that COVID-19 “long haulers” may have a “disability” as defined under Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), meaning employers would have to provide accommodations.

In an article on the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) website, David Fram, JD (above), Director of ADA Services with the National Employment Law Institute (NELI), said, “If someone has COVID-19 for two weeks and there are no lingering effects, he or she still could be regarded as having a disability. While an employer doesn’t have to reasonably accommodate someone it merely regards as having a disability, it must refrain from discriminating against that person.” Additionally, he noted, “An employer must not discriminate against and must reasonably accommodate someone who has an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, which could include a COVID-19 long hauler.” (Photo copyright: National Institutes of Health.)

Are Clinical Laboratories Legally Obligated?

In the same article, S. Leigh Jeter, JD, Senior Counsel with Michael Best and Friedrich in Chicago, said, “Unfortunately, there is no bright-line test for determining whether someone is disabled for purposes of the Act.” She added, “I encourage employers to err on the side of assuming that the employee may be covered under the ADA and then consider those resulting legal obligations.”

Removal of nonessential functions of the position might be a reasonable accommodation, Jeter noted.

According to court records, the case has been assigned to Superior Court Judge D. Tyler Tharpe. A case management conference has been scheduled for July 22 in the Fresno Superior Court.

Clinical laboratory executives would be wise to follow this COVID-19-related lawsuit closely and review their employment policies to better understand their obligation toward their workers under the Americans with Disabilities Act. This case may open the door to additional lawsuits related to COVID-19 firings.

Andrea Downing Peck

Related Information:

Kathleen Hamada vs. Community Hospitals of Central California

CV-48 Notice of Case Management Conference and Assignment of Judge for All Purposes

Fresno Lab Worker Who Had Long-Term COVID Is Suing Hospital, Says She Was Fired for Illness

Comply with ADA, FMLA When Worker Is a ‘COVID-19 Long Hauler’