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Kuechle v. Life's Companion P.C.A.

November 19, 2002

GERRI KUECHLE, RESPONDENT,
v.
LIFE'S COMPANION P.C.A., INC., ET AL., APPELLANTS.



Anoka County District Court File No. C0995577

Considered and decided by Shumaker Presiding Judge, Schumacher Judge, and Klaphake Judge.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

1. An employer who falsely implies that an employee has disobeyed a direct order and neglected an urgent professional duty has made a substantially untrue statement with more than minor inaccuracies for purposes of a defamation action.

2. A person with the reasonable belief that a potential employer knows or will learn of defamatory statements made by a former employer may be compelled to self-publish the defamatory statements in order to defend his or her reputation.

3. An employer's right in a defamation action to a qualified privilege for statements made during an investigation of employee misconduct is not invoked when the employer fails to make a good-faith, thorough investigation.

4. In determining if a person is a "qualified individual" for protection under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), a court must consider the person's present state and limitations and not whether the condition hypothetically can be ameliorated.

5. Under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA), reprisal may be proved by showing a protected activity and an adverse employment action closely connected in time.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Klaphake, Judge

Affirmed

OPINION

Respondent Gerri Keuchle brought claims related to her wrongful employment termination against appellants Donna Wilson and Marilyn Lom, owners of appellant Life's Companion P.C.A., Inc., based on the termination of her employment one month after she filed a disability discrimination claim. The district court found for respondent, after a bench trial, on claims of defamation, disability discrimination under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), and reprisal under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA).

Because we conclude the district court did not abuse its discretion and the record and law support its conclusions, we affirm the district court on the defamation and reprisal issues. Further, because the district court properly and logically interpreted Sutton v. United Airlines, 527 U.S. 471, 119 S. Ct. 2139 (1999), we conclude that respondent is a qualified individual under the ADA and affirm the district court on that issue.

FACTS

Appellants employed respondent as a nurse in a home health care business. In 1983, respondent was diagnosed with panic disorder with agoraphobia, causing her to fear leaving her home and to avoid traveling. Respondent was in remission until 1996, when symptoms resurfaced.

Respondent sought treatment from a number of psychologists and psychiatrists, but declined to take the medication they recommended out of fear of addiction. Instead, respondent took Fridays off during the winter months, forcing herself to go to public places during the day when fewer people were around, in an effort to become acclimated to leaving her home. Appellants initially granted respondent's request for time off, but later took away the accommodation. Although appellants were aware of respondent's disability when she requested Fridays off, they did not inquire into her medical condition or possible accommodations. Appellants also informed respondent that she had to work full time.

In February 1998, respondent asked to return to her flexible schedule, but appellants demanded that she work full time or be on-call. Respondent requested the accommodation a second time, including a letter of support from her doctor, and a third time, but received no response from appellants. She made two more written requests, to which appellants' attorney replied with a letter advising her to seek a professional assessment of her condition and informing her that her new work hours would be 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Respondent filed a disability discrimination claim on April 15, 1998, which reached appellants on April 21, 1998. At 12:15 p.m. on May 12, 1998, the main office received a phone call from a father who could not reach the care provider assigned to meet his disabled son at his noon school bus. A co-worker was sent to the bus to meet the child. Before respondent's supervisor left at approximately 12:15 p.m., she asked respondent, who was alone in the office, if she would be around for a few minutes, and if so, could she ask the missing care provider to call the father. Respondent left at 12:35 p.m., missing the call from the care provider that came in at 12:39 p.m. That afternoon, appellants met with respondent's supervisor and a co-worker to discuss what happened. Without talking with respondent, appellants decided to terminate her employment. Appellants sent a termination letter to respondent stating that she disobeyed a direct order to stay until the care provider called and that she abandoned a vulnerable client. Appellants told respondent they had no choice but to report the incident to the Minnesota Board of Nursing (board), although they never did.

Respondent communicated the reason for her termination to a potential employer during a job interview, repeating the statements in the termination letter. Although not asked the reason for her termination, respondent felt compelled to disclose it because she thought that appellants had reported her to the board. Respondent sued appellant for defamation, disability discrimination, and reprisal. The ...


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