Summary judgment issued to defendant in wrongful termination claim by worker with HIV

By Jon Campisi | Oct 24, 2012

A federal judge has granted summary judgment to the defendant in a wrongful

A federal judge has granted summary judgment to the defendant in a wrongful

termination case in which the plaintiff claimed he had been fired from his job because of his HIV-positive status.

In an Oct. 19 memorandum, U.S. District Judge Berle M. Schiller, of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, granted a motion for summary judgment that had been filed by Wyncote Church Home, which was originally incorrectly designated as Phoebe Ministries in the lawsuit that had been filed by former certified nursing assistant William Wengert.

Wengert, who had worked for the defendant from the spring of 1993 until the summer of 2011, claimed that he was terminated for discriminatory reasons, while the defendant alleged the termination was related to a July 15, 2011, incident in which a patient suffered a broken leg after being handled by the plaintiff.

Background information on the case shows that Wengert never told his supervisors about the incident because he did not believe it constituted a “fall” under the defendant’s policies.

Wengert and another employee – both were attempting to move the female patient at the time she fell and broke her leg – were subsequently fired by the defendant, which considered the incident to be an “abuse situation” that involved “neglect or abuse,” the record shows.

Wengert, however, maintained that his firing was actually related to the fact that he had HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, which would make the termination a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Some employees of the defendant had earlier discover the plaintiff’s HIV-positive status after he had to have blood drawn following a work incident in which he was bitten by a patient, court records show.

It was at that time that Wengert divulged he already had HIV; blood was being drawn to determine if he had contracted the virus from the bite.

In his memorandum, Schiller stated that in order for a plaintiff to bring a claim alleging violations of the ADA, that party must set forth a prima facie case for discrimination, which requires the plaintiff to establish that he is a disabled person within the meaning of the ADA, that he is otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of the job, and that he has suffered an adverse employment decision as a result of discrimination.

In this case, however, the judge determined that Wengert did not make out a prima facie case for discrimination and that the plaintiff failed to produce evidence of pretext on the part of Wyncote.

“Either failure is sufficient to grant summary judgment in Wyncote’s favor,” Schiller wrote in the conclusion to his memorandum.

Schiller wrote that Wengert’s prima facie case would have had to include evidence that creates a genuine issue of fact as to whether Wyncote knew the plaintiff was HIV-positive.

In this case, while Wengert contended that many employees knew of his HIV-positive status, the supervisor who had fired Wengert had only arrived at Wyncote shortly before she terminated the plaintiff, and thus did not personally know Wengert prior to the incident, meaning she also likely didn’t know about this HIV-positive status.

“Indeed, Wengert produced no evidence that any individual responsible for his termination knew, or even perceived, that he was disabled,” the memorandum states. “He thus cannot make out a discrimination claim.”

The individuals who had known about Wengert’s HIV-positive status played no role in the decision to terminate the plaintiff’s employment, the judge wrote.

“This Court will not impute the knowledge of those aware of Wengert’s status to those who were responsible for the adverse employment action,” Schiller wrote. “The Court cannot make the numerous inferential jumps that because some of Wengert’s co-workers knew he was gay, they knew he had HIV and that the person who decided to fire him did so because he was HIV-positive, even though there is no evidence that she knew of either his HIV-positive [status] or his sexual orientation.”

Schiller further determined that Wyncote is entitled to summary judgment because Wengert cannot point to any evidence that suggests the reason provided for the plaintiff’s termination was pretextual.

Schiller wrote that while Wengert was a “valued and dedicated” employee of Wyncote for a long period of time, it is “undisputed that Wengert was a central player in an incident that led to the broken fibula of a resident of the nursing home.”

“Wengert might not agree with the outcome of Wyncote’s investigation, but Wyncote indisputably had a duty to investigate the situation and act upon those findings,” the memorandum states. “Though Wengert might consider the outcome harsh or unfair, that does not sustain a discrimination claim.

“Wyncote may make decisions that its employees (and even this Court) may consider wrong, misguided, or unjust. But provided those decisions do not run afoul of the law, the Court will not revisit them.”

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