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Legal experts are warning nursing home leaders that inappropriate conversations with employees about disabilities, medical conditions or their general health can be costly, after a federal court allowed a worker’s discrimination lawsuit to proceed.

“Not only should they understand that they must respect employee privacy, they must be mindful of boundaries in conversations with employees about medical conditions and overall health,” Fisher Phillips associate Marilyn Higdon and partner George Reeves III wrote in a blog Wednesday.

Their comments followed a late June ruling by the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania both in favor and against Misericordia Convalescent Home, a 50-bed nursing home in York, PA.

The case was brought by Dana Rice-Smith, a Black woman, in August 2020. She alleged the provider discriminated against her on the basis of race and disability and retaliated against her following complaints. 

Rice-Smith first interviewed with Misericordia in July 2016 and asked to use a cane on the job due to multiple sclerosis. After she was hired, she reportedly suffered an injury in October 2016 that aggravated her conditions. She began receiving workers compensation benefits despite none of the documents referencing her multiple sclerosis. 

Misericordia alleged in court documents that Rice-Smith was often caught using her phone while working, making improper changes to the schedule and instigating confrontations. 

Her supervisor eventually recommended that she be terminated from the job. Rice-Smith claims that leadership mentioned her multiple sclerosis and how it impacted her work during the dismissal meeting, while Misericordia denies the claim.

The federal court granted Misericordia’s motions to dismiss the claims of discrimination on the basis of race and retaliation in late June, but ruled that Rice-Smith’s disability discrimination allegations can move forward because she initially mentioned the multiple sclerosis during her interview. 

Higdon and Reeves said providers can learn “valuable lessons” from the case so far: Employees don’t always need a record of medical treatment or an obvious disability to meet their burden for an ADA claim, and even comments with good intentions that express concern for employees’ wellbeing can be perceived as negative. 

They added that providers should also train managers on how to understand the potential impact of their words to ensure that any comments made cannot be construed negatively toward an employees’ condition. 

“Advise managers to seek assistance from appropriate human resources personnel when employees disclose a medical condition or any concerns arise about employees’ ability to perform their job functions as a result of any health condition,” they wrote. 

The parties were ordered to meet to discuss a potential settlement by no later than July 12 and if no agreement was found, then the court would set a trial schedule. As of Thursday, it was not clear if any hearings had been set, according to court records.