Nebraska Bank Employee Wins Reversal of Medical Bias Ruling

March 17, 2009

A federal appeals court has reversed a lower court ruling against a former Beatrice bank worker who said he lost his job because of his rare voice disorder.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday ruled in a case involving Jeffrey Willnerd. He sued First National of Nebraska in 2005, saying the company’s decision to eliminate his job and refusal to rehire him for other positions violated the Americans With Disabilities Act.

First National argued that Willnerd’s job was eliminated for economic reasons. The company also said he wasn’t rehired because of the merits of other job applicants, according to court documents.

In 2007, U.S. Magistrate F.A. Gossett granted First National’s request for a summary judgment in its favor before trial.

But the three-judge 8th Circuit panel said a jury should hear the case.

“It is not necessarily the case that Willnerd was more qualified than the person actually hired, and at the end of the day, a jury may well accept First National’s proffered rationale,” Judge Michael J. Melloy wrote for the 8th Circuit panel.

Doug Peterson, Willnerd’s Lincoln-based attorney, said he was encouraged by the decision.

Phone messages left with First National’s attorneys were not immediately returned.

Willnerd began working at a Beatrice bank in 1982. He was primarily responsible for real-estate loans and some commercial and installment lending. In 1983, First National acquired the bank through a subsidiary.

In 1999, Willnerd noticed his voice was starting to fail, a condition that worsened in following years to the point where he could only whisper. He interacted regularly with customers and didn’t request any accommodations or seek different bank duties.

First National has said that it began moving some duties of smaller branches, including those handled by Willnerd, to Omaha in an attempt to cut expenses and boost income.

Willnerd’s job was eliminated in September 2003. Later that year, doctors at the Mayo Clinic diagnosed Willnerd with the rare neurological voice disorder, hyperkinetic dysarthia, which did not respond to treatment.

In total, Willnerd applied for 22 positions with First National between December 2003 and October 2005.


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