The city of Spokane violated laws protecting disabled people when terminating an employee who suffered a stroke, according to a jury verdict Tuesday.
The judgment also focused on Heather Lowe, the city’s human resources director, for her role in the dismissal of Liane Carlson, who worked under Lowe. Carlson had worked for the city for five years as a human resources specialist and analyst, and was the city’s coordinator for the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The city must pay Carlson $226,000 in back pay, and $4,000 for emotional distress, according to the verdict, which found that Carlson’s disability was a “motivating factor” for her dismissal by the city. The city also will pay Carlson’s attorney’s fees, but those have not yet been decided.
Jurors agreed with Carlson that her stroke did not prevent her from performing her job with the city and her termination violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Washington State Law Against Discrimination.
City officials said they were examining the verdict.
“We respect the jury process and their decision,” said Brian Coddington, the mayor’s spokesman. “We’ll be reviewing their decision to see if there are any issues for appeal.”
Carlson’s attorney, Bob Dunn, said “there was no question we were going to take her case.”
“She was in good health and had a stroke. Went to the hospital and had all the classic stroke symptoms,” Dunn said. “Six months later, she asked to come back. When she came back, they said you’re gone.”
Carlson received a positive employee review in 2010. About a year later, according to court documents, Carlson had a stroke on July 19, 2011. Six months later, her doctor approved her request to return to work in a limited capacity, first by telecommuting before resuming full-time office work.
About a month after being cleared to return to work, Lowe told Carlson she could either return to work part time, at the expense of her benefits, or begin using the city’s leave-share program, which allows employees to share their sick leave hours with other employees.
Carlson protested and Lowe had her perform a “fitness for duty” examination, before placing her on administrative leave while reviewing Carlson’s request for work accommodation. The exam initially cleared her to work.
However, Lowe sent an email to the doctor who performed the exam, redefining Carlson’s job description, Carlson claimed in her lawsuit. As a result, the doctor changed her recommendation allowing Carlson to return. Instead, Carlson was laid off on June 5, 2012.
City records show that Carlson was paid nearly $80,000 in 2010.
Dunn has successfully argued many high profile cases against the city, most of them representing police officers. He represented Scott Stephens, the acting police chief whose demotion under Chief Frank Straub led him to make comments some of his colleagues viewed as threats, and Jay Mehring, who sued the city for wrongful termination and defamation, winning a $722,000 jury award and $833,000 for Dunn’s attorney’s fees.
Carlson’s trial lasted five days and was heard by U.S District Court Judge Thomas O. Rice. It is unclear how much the city paid for its defense, which was done by Sarah Mack, an attorney with the Seattle-based firm Patterson, Buchanan, Fobes and Leitch.
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