AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has reversed the dismissal of an employment discrimination lawsuit filed against a Milbridge nursing home.
The suit filed originally in superior court in Washington County contends the Narraguagus Bay Health Care Facility failed to accommodate a work-related injury suffered by Timothy Daniels, a maintenance manager. Daniels filed a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission and subsequently received approval to pursue a civil suit. Within two months of receiving that approval, Daniels was fired.
In his two-count civil suit complaint against the facility, Daniels alleged disability discrimination and retaliation. The facts of the case were never heard, as a motion by Narraguagus Bay for a summary judgement dismissal of the lawsuit was granted before the specifics of the case could be offered into evidence.
Daniels contends he injured his right shoulder while on the job in October 2007. After surgery in January 2008 and a few weeks leave of absence to recover, he said he requested but was denied lighter duty given work restrictions related to his injury. He subsequently filed a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission in August of 2008. After he was cleared for full duty by his physician, Daniels was rehired in December 2008 as a maintenance assistant because his position as manager had since been filled. By February 2009, however, he was reinstated as manager. In July 2009, he suffered another work-related shoulder injury, although the owner of the facility was sceptical that the injury occurred at work.
On Dec. 11, 2009, Dr. Steven Weisberger, the facility’s owner, wrote an email to a Narraguagus Bay employee that read: “I do think they need to ride hard on [Daniels] as I am not sure if he is doing a good job and he is a huge liability with a [bad] attitude and a lazy work [ethic] that is well known in the community. We have to be sure that we document everything with him everyday as he is going forward with that civil suit. I am sure that he hurt himself lobstering and not in the facility.”
Within eight weeks of that email, Daniels was fired after an inspection of the facility detected problems with water temperatures, which was an area of Daniels’ responsibility.
The June 21 supreme court ruling contends the specifics of the allegations should have been heard. The ruling notes that Daniels offered evidence that he has a disability, that he could nonetheless perform the essential functions of his job and that he was treated adversely because of his disability. The summary judgement, the court rules, precluded an opportunity for the court to “delve into the employer’s motive and intent” for firing Daniels.
The ruling remanded the case to superior court “for further proceedings.”
Daniels’ attorney, Arthur Greif, said Friday he expects the case will go to a jury in Washington County before year’s end.
“I think the Maine supreme court is sending a message that disputes over employee disability are so fact-intensive that they should be decided by nine good jurors, rather than one judge,” Greif said.
Daniels is eager to be reinstated, Greif said.
“He was loved by the residents, and he loved the residents,” he said. “He’s from Milbridge, and he knows these people, and they know him as the handyman around town. He would love his job back.”
Greif said the assertion that Daniels injured himself while fishing, not at work, is not true.
“There’s no evidence for that at all,” he said. “The owner was desperate to get rid of Tim. Too many employers see a partially disabled employee as a liability.”
Gregg Frame, the attorney who represents the nursing home, said his take on the supreme court ruling was the message that “no employment discrimination case is prone to summary judgement.”
“The message was that these cases are so fact-specific that an inquiry into the factual disputes is something for a jury, not a judge,” Frame said. “We remain quite confident in our position.”