They say age is a state of mind, and for one employee, it was a bit more than that. We ran across an interesting case where an employee was terminated following hospitalization. Employees returning to work after an illness can always present distinctive legal issues, particularly if an employer is considering firing the employee following such a leave.

According to an April 30 EEOC press release, “The EEOC charged that, in February 2022, a company fired a long-tenured receptionist, despite having recognized the 78-year-old employee as one of its employees of the year in January 2022. The receptionist’s termination came shortly after a brief hospitalization. The EEOC alleged that upon the receptionist’s return to work, the general manager asked her how long she planned to continue to work, whether she needed to work, and whether she would prefer to spend her time traveling and seeing family instead of working.”

At this point, the general manager was already treading a precarious legal ledge. The receptionist stated her desire to continue working. Though she had never before been told of performance concerns, the general manager said the company had lost confidence in her, noting her hospitalization. The receptionist was fired the following day and replaced by an employee half her age. Hoo boy!

The EEOC stated these actions violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). They also said the statements about “losing confidence” in the employee due to a hospitalization could be viewed as disability discrimination. In addition, the employee being over the age of 40 – a protected age group by the way – and replaced by a younger employee could be a violation of ADEA age discrimination.

The company settled the allegations, agreeing to pay $78,000 to the former employee. It is required to revise “its ADEA and ADA policies, post a notice in the workplace informing employees of the settlement, and train all employees and supervisors on their rights and responsibilities under both the ADEA and the ADA.” The company also agreed to provide the EEOC with regular reports regarding any future complaints of age or disability discrimination.

This case should serve as an important reminder that all terminations should be carefully assessed, especially when it involves an employee’s age and healthcare. Evaluating the documentation and risks on the front end could lessen a hefty financial pain on the back end.

The information and opinions expressed are for educational purposes only and are based on current practice, industry-related knowledge and business expertise. The information provided shall not be construed as legal advice, express or implied.