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Nurse’s Perceived Visual Disability Case Goes Forward

When Paula Babb had to lean in close to read her computer screen, one of the doctor-owners of Maryville Anesthesiologists (Maryville) asked her about it. Babb responded that she had been diagnosed with a “degenerative retinal condition.” This condition made it more difficult for her to read some screens and medical records but it was manageable. After telling the other owners about Babb’s condition, a meeting was held to address it with Babb. She asserted again that the “disorder did not affect her ability to do her job, and that her vision was otherwise ‘stable.’” According to Babb, she was told that she was otherwise doing well in her position. They did request that she schedule an appointment with an ophthalmologist and let Maryville know the result. It was also suggested that she explore disability insurance.

Thereafter, Babb was allegedly monitored when she asked for help in reading screens and the alleged issues with her vision were mentioned in her performance evaluations. Two errors unrelated to her vision were also noted in those evaluations. She was then fired. While Babb was told she was fired because of her errors, an email was sent to the staff stated that Babb was fired because she had been having “major issues with her eyesight,” there had been complaints about her inability to read the monitor, and that she had failed to provide physician documentation to show she was safe to practice. Babb sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act, alleging “perceived” disability. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld her right to proceed to trial. The court ruled that a jury should determine whether it was reasonable to conclude that

Babb was fired because of her two “clinical” errors. Babb presented evidence that she had acted reasonably during the two incidents. While Maryville claimed it had an “honest belief” as to the seriousness of her mistakes, expert testimony rebutted the likelihood that a reasonable anesthesiologist practice would fire her for those reasons. There was ample evidence found by the court to reflect the employer’s concern about her visual condition. The email informing staff could easily reflect the pretextual nature of the reason originally claimed by the company for terminating her. The court stated, “If this kind of ‘smoking gun’ evidence cannot get an employment discrimination plaintiff past summary judgment on the question of pretext, it is hard to imagine what could.”