Appeals Court: OK to Fire Arkansas Worker with Cancer

April 17, 2009

A company in Arkansas can fire an employee who can’t work because of a serious disease, like cancer, a federal appeals court in St. Louis has ruled.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Fred’s Stores of Arkansas, which was sued by employee Floyce Reed Peyton after she was fired as manager of a Fred’s store in Heber Springs.

Peyton sued the company, arguing that she was discriminated against because of her illness. She underwent emergency surgery in 2006 for treatment of ovarian cancer. According to her complaint, a Fred’s manager called Peyton while she was still in the hospital and fired her.

Peyton sued in 2007, seeking $63,600 in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages. A federal judge dismissed the suit, and she appealed to the 8th Circuit.

The federal appeals panel upheld the lower court’s decision that said Peyton couldn’t perform her duties as store manager with or without reasonable accommodations, as called for under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Courts recognize that employers should not be burdened with guess-work regarding an employee’s return to work after an illness,” the opinion by the three-judge panel said.

The 8th Circuit cited one of its earlier opinions that found that the Americans with Disabilities Act did not cover illnesses like cancer.

“Employers are not qualified to predict the degree of success of an employee’s recovery from an illness or injury.” To do so would burden the employer “with the duty to see into the future,” the court said.

Peyton had argued that her cancer diagnosis should be considered a disability, and therefore covered by the ADA. In court filings, Peyton said that her firing caused her emotional and physical distress, that she was forced to file bankruptcy, and that the turmoil led to her divorce from her husband.

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