A federal appeals court on Friday reinstated a disability discrimination claim filed by a call center employee who was terminated after requesting a reduced schedule under the Family and Medical Leave Act.
Greenwood Village, Colo.-based First Data Technologies, a credit and debit card processing company, employed Terri Cowgill as a call center representative from 2004 to September 2015, according to the ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, in Terri Cowgill v. First Data Technologies Inc; Fiserv Solutions LLC.
In January 2015, Cowgill requested a reduced schedule under the FLMA due to back pain she experienced from a car accident, which was granted.
In August 2015, she confirmed her request for FMLA leave, which was also approved.
Cowgill was fired in September 2015 after being accused twice of improperly handling a phone call.
She sued the company in US District Court in Baltimore, accusing it of disability discrimination, failure to accommodate under the ADA, and retaliation under the ADA and FMLA. The District Court granted First Data’s motion to dismiss the case.
The 4th Circuit affirmed Cowgill’s failure-to-accommodate and retaliation dismissals, but reinstated her disability discrimination claim.
On the issue of whether Cowgill had met his employer’s expectations, one of the factors considered in determining disability discrimination, the judgment said: “If an employer genuinely believed that one of its employees was performing poorly … it seems unlikely that would rate the employee’s performance highly.
“Yet that’s what happened here. The record shows that Cowgill ‘routinely received above-average performance reviews,'”“ and received the highest possible grade for two periods.
To prove disability discrimination, a plaintiff must also show that the adverse action occurred under circumstances “that create a reasonable inference of unlawful discrimination,” the ruling said.
Ms. Cowgill was twice placed on an improvement plan, once three weeks after she requested an accommodation and again immediately after she confirmed she was requesting recertification of her FMLA leave, the ruling said.
The “extremely short time gap” gives rise to a discriminatory inference, the ruling said in withdrawing the disability discrimination claim for further proceedings.
In a partial dissent, one of the judges on the three-judge panel said he disagreed with Cowgill’s finding that she met First Data’s expectations when she was discharged.
Attorneys in the case did not respond to requests for comment.