Nurse anesthesiologist Paula E. Babb claims her employer, Maryville Anesthesiologists P.C., discriminated against her for having a disability — even though she does not. The sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati has reinstated her case after the U.S. District Court in Knoxville, Tennessee granted Maryville summary judgment in dismissing the case.
While Babb claims she was fired from her job in 2016 because her employers believed she had vision problems, Maryville claims she was fired because she committed two clinical errors that put patients at risk.
“Maryville Anesthesiologists wholeheartedly disagrees, and asserts it fired Babb, not because of any visual disability (whether real or not), but rather, because Babb committed two ‘clinical errors’ that placed her patients at grave risk of injury,” the ruling says.
However, Babb maintains in the case that she was fired because one of Maryville’s physician-owners witnessed her “place her face very close to a computer screen” and asked her why she was doing that. Babb said she had a “congenital retinal condition” that made it difficult for her to read screens and medical records, but that it did not affect her ability to do her job. The one physician-owner relayed the message to another and added Babb “would be blind in ten years,” according to court documents.
The document then goes on to say two more of Maryville’s physician-owners emailed Babb about her vision. They scheduled a meeting with her and told her to visit an opthamologist to confirm her vision was stable. After the meeting, the physician-owners had an email conversation where they acknowledged they ‘all kn[e]w that’ an ophthalmologist couldn’t issue an opinion definitively ‘clearing’ Babb to practice anesthesiology (because ophthalmologists generally do not make those kinds of calls), Babb’s situation might require them to ‘talk to [their] attorney,'” according to the case.
In the following months, the case says, Babb was involved in a catch-22. Her bosses told her to ask other staff members in the hospital to help confirm she was reading monitors correctly, which made it seem more apparent she had eye problems. These concerns made their way into her annual evaluations.
But one of the physician-owners learned Babb had committed an error in Dec. 2015 unrelated to her eyesight, where she began waking a patient up too early before he had been moved to the proper bed, which caused him to nearly fall off of the operating table. Another error she made occurred in 2016, when a patient’s arm began twitching before a surgery, suggesting she did not sufficiently paralyze him.
In January 2016, physician-owners met to discuss Babb’s vision problems and these two errors. They voted to fire her. According to court documents, Maryville says it reached this decision solely because Babb’s “clinical errors” and not her vision. Babb says she had never received any complaints about her work or had these incidents brought to her attention before.
Furthermore, an email another nurse anesthesiologist sent to the others attributed Babb’s firing completely to her vision. The court document quotes the email:
As most of you know, [Babb] has been having major issues with her eyesight and as of late, it has seemed to be getting even worse. We have had numerous complaints from [hospital] staff regarding her inability to read the monitor, etc. Over the past several months the group has given her several opportunities to provide documentation from her eye specialist saying that she was safe to practice. [Babb] was unable to provide this documentation.This, in addition to a few other issues, has forced the group to make a very difficult decision. As of today, she is no longer with our group. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news. This was one of the reasons that our meeting was postponed. See you all tomorrow.
After her termination, Babb filed suit with the District Court charging violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which states an employer cannot fire someone for thinking they are disabled, even if they are not.
The Court of Appeals decision to reinstate the case says the trial must go before a jury. It says there is both a question of the reasonableness of the choice to fire Babb based on the two errors and the question of whether the decision to fire Babb was based solely on the errors, or if her perceived disability played a role.