Ariz.: Unclear Reasons for Termination, GINA Claims Require Jury Trial

By Rosemarie Lally Jan 20, 2015
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An employee’s claims that he was terminated due to a disability and that his employer illegally obtained genetic information in violation of the Genetic Information Nondisclosure Act (GINA) will proceed to a jury trial because neither side presented sufficient evidence to win summary judgment, an Arizona federal district court held.

Matthew Maxwell, an employee of Verde Valley Ambulance Company (VVAC), had suffered a leg injury in a motorcycle accident several years before being hired as a paramedic. As a result of his injury, Maxwell regularly takes Motrin and performs a weekly home exercise program to remediate the residual pain. He also claims to walk with a limp and regularly “trip over his toes.” During his tenure with the ambulance company, he was promoted from reserve paramedic to captain.

However, the emergency management services chief discovered in January 2011 that Maxwell was using a shared company computer to create a business plan for a medical marijuana business, in violation of employer policies prohibiting personal use of company property, and demanded that he remove the files. In late January, VVAC’s board chairman sent Maxwell a letter advising him that the board of directors was opposed to any employee being involved in the medical marijuana business. Maxwell was told he would be “terminated immediately” if VVAC learned that he was still involved in that business.

In the process of moving VVAC into a new building in May 2011, the captain allegedly found new files related to the medical marijuana business on the shared computer. The chief concurrently learned Maxwell had been telling co-workers that he was going to sue VVAC if he fell down the stairs due to his alleged disability. The captain discussed this issue with Maxwell and he told her that he was disabled and needed a first-floor bedroom.

The chief consulted with the board chairman about Maxwell’s employment, telling him that Maxwell claimed to have a disability. Although the chairman concluded that Moore had already decided to terminate Maxwell at the time of this meeting, he advised her that Maxwell should be sent to a physician to determine whether he was disabled before proceeding with termination.

The captain sent Maxwell to a doctor on May 30 to determine whether he was qualified to engage in his work duties. On June 1, the doctor sent the chief a report stating that Maxwell had good motor function in both legs and could perform the functions of his job. Maxwell was terminated later that day.

The termination letter gave no reason for the termination other than that Maxwell was an at-will employee. Maxwell sued for disability discrimination, retaliation, and violations of GINA.

Maxwell’s assertion that he regularly used a knee brace, is able to use his legs for only a limited amount of time, and experiences numbness, weakness, and pain isn’t conclusive evidence that he is in fact disabled, the court said. This determination is for a jury to decide under the liberal standards of the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act of 2008.

At trial VVAC claimed Maxwell was terminated for violating the personal use of company property policy, past disciplinary issues, and dissension caused by his threats to sue the company if he fell down the stairs. In response to VVAC’s argument – that even if the court found Maxwell is disabled, he couldn't establish disability discrimination or retaliation because the termination decision was made before he claimed a disability and the reasons for his discharge were unrelated to his alleged disability – the court found that the employer’s evidence showing when the decision to terminate was made was inconsistent. Although the chief and the board chairman said in their depositions that the termination decision was made before Maxwell reported his disability and requested an accommodation, the chief also testified that she conferred with the chairman after she received the physician's letter and that the termination decision was made at that time – approximately two weeks after Maxwell requested an accommodation.

VVAC didn’t mention that Maxwell was fired for disciplinary problems and policy violations until after the EEOC charge was filed, the court noted. Because the reasons given in depositions and at trial were inconsistent with the termination letter, a jury is needed to decide the true facts, the court said.

According to Maxwell, VVAC violated GINA when the doctor asked him to fill out a “family history” on the medical evaluation form. The form, with Maxwell’s statement that his grandfather had been diagnosed with cancer, was later submitted to VVAC by the physician with his evaluation of Maxwell’s physical condition. The court found that this raised several issues for a jury to decide, including whether the information was "genetic information" as defined in GINA, whether it had been acquired in violation of GINA, and whether the acquisition was inadvertent.

The court, noting that neither party had provided sufficient evidence with regard to any of the claims, refused to enter summary judgment for either party.

Maxwell v. Verde Valley Ambulance Company Inc., D. Ariz., No. CV-13-08044-PCT-BSB (Sept. 10, 2014).

Rosemarie Lally, J.D., is a freelance legal writer and editor based in Washington, D.C.
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