The Appellate Division has stopped a former medical resident’s discrimination and constructive discharge claims from proceeding because the resident did not do everything in her power to remain employed. On August 2, 2019, in Liro v. Inspira Medical Centers, Inc., et al, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, affirmed an October 16, 2017 trial court order that granted summary judgment to defendants Inspira Medical Centers and Inspira Health Network (“Inspira”).
Christina Liro was hired as a medical resident in Inspira’s Family Medicine Residency Program for the period of July 1, 2011, to June 30, 2013. After suffering a miscarriage in March of 2012, Liro went out on medical leave for the duration of her first contract year. Despite not completing all her first-year rotations, Liro returned to the program as a second-year resident in June of 2012.
That July, Liro was scheduled to work at an out-patient center, CompleteCare. However, she did not report for duty to her first four shifts, and did not contact the out-patient center regarding her absences. In August, after her fourth absence, Liro was briefly suspended from the residency program with pay because of her “no call no show” absences.
In response, Liro filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) claiming discrimination and retaliation on the basis of gender/sex, pregnancy, and disability. The parties finalized a remediation plan, detailing procedures for minimizing the unscheduled use of paid time off and proper notification when Liro was unable to do a rotation. Liro returned to the residency program in September of 2012.
On September 19, 2012, Liro informed Inspira she was taking a medical leave of absence effective immediately, based on alleged depression and a “hostile work environment.” In December, prior to the expiration of her leave, human resources contacted Liro to obtain an update on her return to work date. When Liro responded that she was not cleared to return to work by her physician, human resources informed Liro that the physician would have to provide an anticipated return date and a certification. Liro testified that she mailed the leave paperwork to her physician, but never followed up.
After Liro’s approved medical leave expired and she did not return to work, human resources reminded Liro that they did not receive the required paperwork from her physician. Liro did not respond. Shortly thereafter, Liro emailed human resources stating she needed information on how to file a workers’ compensation claim. Inspira’s employee health manager emailed Liro to offer assistance, but Liro never responded. On January 16, 2013, Inspira terminated Liro’s resident contract. They informed her she could reapply to the program if she were able to return.
Instead, Liro filed suit, alleging discrimination and retaliation on the basis of gender, pregnancy, and disability in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.
Inspira filed for summary judgment. Inspira argued that Liro was given rotation shifts following her miscarriage and engaged in a series of “no call no show” absences, which resulted in a short suspension with pay, after which she went out on leave a few weeks later and ultimately ceased communicating with defendants concerning her return date. Inspira argued that Liro’s conduct gave them no choice but to terminate her. Liro argued that her employer treated her differently than it treated its other medical residents who were not pregnant. The court granted summary judgment in favor of Inspira.
The Appellate Decision
The Appellate Division affirmed summary judgment in favor of Inspira, noting Liro’s pattern of failure to follow through on employment commitments: Liro did not follow up with her physician regarding the paperwork necessary to extend her medical leave; she did not respond to Inspira’s email offering to help her with filing a workers’ compensation claim; she did not appeal her termination; and did not reapply. In short, Liro did not do everything in her power to remain employed.
The case is a reminder that while employers must accommodate medical leaves of absence, employees must cooperate and do everything reasonable and necessary to remain employed. It is also important that the employer remain engaged with its employee and document its efforts.
For more information regarding this decision and best practices when dealing with an employee’s medical leave, please contact John C. Petrella, Esq., Director of the firm’s Employment Litigation Practice Group or Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Director of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group.
Attachment: For the full decision, click here.