A plaintiff has been awarded $4.45 million for an age discrimination, disability discrimination, and retaliation action he filed under state law in a court in Iowa against his former employer. Gregory Hawkins v. Grinnell Regional Medical Center, et al., No. 08791 LALA002281. The award included $220,009 in back pay, $2 million in emotional distress damages, and $2.28 million for future emotional distress damages.
This case illustrates the importance of properly accommodating disabled employees and clearly documenting performance issues. Disability issues can present significant challenges when performance is an issue. Reasonable accommodation may include allowing an employee to take leave for treatment and recovery, as long as such leave is not an undue burden on the employer. Employers should appropriately document performance issues through written discipline and accurate performance reviews, so ongoing performance issues do not seem to appear suddenly just before an employee is fired.
According to the evidence, the plaintiff, Gregory Hawkins, was a long-term employee of Grinnell Medical Center who was promoted to the position of lab director in 1985. Hawkins received favorable performance reviews and pay raises during his employment. In late-2013, Hawkins was diagnosed with breast cancer and took a leave of absence to obtain treatment. He returned to the lab director position in March 2014 on a part-time basis.
In June 2014, hospital administrators asked Hawkins to retire, claiming the Hospital needed a full-time lab director. Hawkins asked to keep working, telling the administrators in an email that his job was “keeping his mind off” his cancer diagnosis. His oncologist expected him to make a full recovery by the end of 2014, and Hawkins said he wished to begin working full-time again at that time. The Hospital suspended Hawkins until he was able to return full-time to the position in October 2014. Hawkins worked as the lab director until June 2015, when he was terminated.
Although the Hospital claimed Hawkins was terminated because he failed to adequately manage the lab and lab employees, Hawkins alleged that he was fired because of his age (63 at the time of the verdict), disability, and protected activity. The jury sided with the plaintiff, finding that the Hospital had violated Iowa state laws prohibiting age discrimination, disability discrimination, and retaliation. The size of the compensatory damages award – $4.28 million for past and future emotional distress damages – clearly showed the jury believed the plaintiff had been profoundly affected by the Hospital’s treatment of him following a cancer diagnosis.