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Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. McLeod Health, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

January 31, 2019

EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, Plaintiff - Appellant,
v.
MCLEOD HEALTH, INC., Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued: November 15, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina, at Florence. Bruce H. Hendricks, District Judge. (4:14-cv-03615-BHH)

         ARGUED:

          Jeremy Daniel Horowitz, UNITED STATES EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, Washington, D.C., for Appellant.

          Michael Montgomery Shetterly, I, OGLETREE, DEAKINS, NASH, SMOAK & STEWART, P.C., Greenville, South Carolina, for Appellee.

         ON BRIEF:

          James L. Lee, Deputy General Counsel, Jennifer S. Goldstein, Associate General Counsel, Elizabeth E. Theran, Assistant General Counsel, Office of General Counsel, UNITED STATES EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, Washington, D.C., for Appellant.

          Lucas J. Asper, OGLETREE, DEAKINS, NASH, SMOAK & STEWART, P.C., Greenville, South Carolina, for Appellee.

          Before GREGORY, Chief Judge, and KEENAN and FLOYD, Circuit Judges.

          FLOYD, Circuit Judge

         The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) brought suit against McLeod Health, Inc. for alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The EEOC claimed that McLeod violated the ADA by requiring Cecilia Whitten, a longtime employee with a disability, to undergo a work-related medical exam. Additionally, the EEOC claimed that McLeod violated the ADA by wrongfully discharging Whitten on the basis of her disability. The district court granted summary judgment to McLeod on both claims, and the EEOC now appeals. For the reasons that follow, we reverse the district court and remand for further proceedings.

         I.

         For 28 years, Whitten worked for McLeod, a corporation that operates various hospitals and other healthcare facilities in South Carolina.[1] She was, in essence, the editor of McLeod's internal employee newsletter. One of her responsibilities was to develop content for the newsletter by interviewing other employees and writing about company events. To that end, Whitten typically traveled among McLeod's various campuses. Although it was not always so, McLeod now has five different campuses, spread throughout an area of roughly 100 miles.

         Whitten was born with a physical disability known as "postaxial hypoplasia of the lower extremity." J.A. 284. Consequently, she lacks certain bones in her legs, feet, and right hand. J.A. 282. Her lower legs are, in her words, "shorter than normal," and her "right arm is shorter than [her] left arm." Id.

         As a result of her disability, Whitten has always struggled with mobility. "Falling," she testified, "has been part of my life all my life and there's no way around it." J.A. 317. Although she has had several surgeries to increase her stability, her limited "use of [her] feet and legs" still causes her to "fall sometimes" and "stumble sometimes." J.A. 287. Additionally, her condition causes her to "get . . .tired more easily" and makes it difficult for her to sit or stand "in one position for too long." J.A. 287-88.

         Despite her limited mobility, Whitten satisfactorily performed her duties as editor of McLeod's employee newsletter for almost three decades. In McLeod's words, Whitten's condition "has not impacted her ability to perform the essential functions of her job during her employment." J.A. 142. Records indicate that Whitten fell at work multiple times before the events that precipitated this appeal.

         Over the course of several months preceding the events at issue here, Whitten's manager, Jumana Swindler, repeatedly expressed concerns about Whitten's performance to McLeod's human resources department (HR). Swindler told HR that Whitten had been missing deadlines, arriving late to work, and, in Swindler's view, displaying a less-than-enthusiastic attitude about McLeod's internal messaging. In her discussions with HR, Swindler raised the possibility that Whitten's performance issues were due to problems with her health. Swindler thought that Whitten looked "sluggish," as if walking was more difficult for her than usual. J.A. 390. According to Swindler, Whitten appeared flushed and winded after moving very short distances; she also seemed to have trouble staying alert during meetings.

         At HR's suggestion, Swindler attempted to address Whitten's performance issues by meeting with Whitten, clarifying her expectations, and reducing Whitten's workload. She did not raise ...


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