11th Circuit: Discovery May Include Executives for Insurer Accused of Disability Discrimination

By Jim Sams | June 22, 2021

A woman pursuing a disability discrimination claim may depose senior executives at the insurance company that fired her, a federal appellate court ruled Monday, overturning a decision by federal judge in Alabama.

Montgomery attorney Julian McPhillips said the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals’ “landmark” ruling will help plaintiff’s attorneys conduct serious discovery in disability discrimination cases. He said he expects deposition testimony by a senior human resources official will help prove that Alfa Mutual Insurance Co. fired his client Jennifer Akridge because it did not wish to continue paying the $10,000-per-month cost of her multiple sclerosis medications.

Julian McPhillips

“When I show him all the documents I’m going to hit him with he’s going to have a hard time denying it,” McPhillips said. “I can hardly wait to take his deposition. I’m going to turn him every way but loose.”

Akridge had worked for Alfa for 27 years in December 2016 when the company terminated her from her management job in the auto underwriting department. She had been named “Employee of the Year” in 1995.

Akridge said her supervisor told her during a meeting that her job was being eliminated because of “automation expenses” — specifically the cost of installing new software developed by Guidewire that automated many of the tasks that she performed.

The lawsuit charges that “automation” was merely a pretext. She was fired because the self-insured company was looking for ways to cut costs and decided to terminate her even though she had received “exceeds expectations” performance reviews throughout her career, even after being diagnosed with MS in 1993.

Akridge’s attorney petitioned to depose 10 executives at the company, including Scott Forrest, executive director of human resources.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Gray M. Borden in Montgomery denied the motions, allowing only two employees “hand-picked by Alfa” to be deposed, the suit says. A human resources staffer testified that Forrest “knew nothing” about the cost of Akridge’s medications. Borden denied several motions by Akridge’s lawyers to depose Forrest specifically.

Borden granted a motion by Alfa for summary judgment, finding that Akridge had not presented any evidence that decision makers were aware of her medical condition when they terminated her.

A panel of the 11th Circuit Court found that the magistrate judge had abused his discretion by refusing Akridge’s request to depose Forrest. The opinion says the US Supreme Court has made it clear that while discovery can be limited to prevent fishing expeditions, the rules should be construed liberally to permit “robust discovery.”

The opinion says the appellate panel said it found “it difficult to believe that Forrest had no information touching on Akridge’s medical expenses and termination.”

“”It stands to reason that if a company terminates an employee in an effort to ‘cut costs,’ someone at that company must have access to information on how costly an employee is – including pay and benefits,” the opinion says.

The court reversed the district court’s order granting summary judgment.

McPhillips said as of late Monday, Alfa had made no inquiries about settling the case. “It won’t be us reaching out,” he said.

About the photo: The courthouse for the U.S. District Court for Middle Alabama is shown.

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