Medpace Allegedly Discriminated Against Assualted Employee Exposed to HIV

Yarelyn Mena and Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

On March 16, 2013, Kathryn Zabell brought an action against former employer Medpace, Inc. (“Medpace”) under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) alleging Medpace terminated her employment for a perceived disability. In 2010, Medpace hired Ms. Zabell as a Medical Writer II, the second highest level at Medpace for her position. In 2011, Ms. Zabell was assaulted in her home. She notified her boss, Mr. Breen, who allowed her to take time off from work to attend therapy sessions and doctors’ appointments. Weeks after the assault, Ms. Zabell discovered that her assailant had the human immunodeficiency virus (“HIV”). She informed Mr. Breen of her exposure to HIV and requested to take some time off to be with her family, which he approved. Shortly after Ms. Zabell’s return to work, she noticed differences in Mr. Breen’s demeanor towards her; he ceased casual talk, changed his body language around her, and watched everything she touched when she was in his office. Within three months of Ms. Zabell informing Mr. Breen of her exposure to HIV, Medpace terminated her employment. Ms. Zabell claims Mr. Breen discriminated against her as if she had HIV. After she was terminated, Ms. Zabell learned she in fact was not HIV positive.

Mr. Breen and the Senior Medical Writer, Ms. Cafferkey, claim they terminated Ms. Zabell because her work was not progressing and they had to spend a great deal of time editing her work; however, emails between both parties reveal that Mr. Breen and Ms. Cafferkey assured Ms. Zabell of the high quality of her work, with criticisms comparable to other Medpace employees who were not terminated.

Medpace moved for summary judgment on the above-mentioned issue. Although Ms. Zabell did not have a disability, she can establish an ADA claim under the theory of having been “regarded as disabled,” i.e., a perceived disability. To succeed, she must demonstrate to the court that if it were not for Mr. Breen believing she had a disability, she would not have been terminated. In Gruener v. Ohio Cas. Ins. Co., the Sixth Circuit held that the “regarded as disabled” theory of disability discrimination “protects employees who are perfectly able to perform a job, but are rejected… because of the myths, fears and stereotypes associated with disabilities.” Further, for purposes of the ADA “[the] HIV infection satisfies the statutory and regulatory definition of a physical impairment during every stage of the disease.” Ms. Zabell did not require any burdensome accommodations, nor was her work negatively affected, yet when Mr. Breen learned Ms. Zabell was exposed to HIV treated her markedly differently before terminating her employment.

On March 31, 2015, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio decided in Ms. Zabell’s favor, denying Medpace summary judgment. Ms. Zabell showed that there was a genuine issue as to whether Medpace’s proffered rationale was pretextual. The court opinion rested heavily on the temporal proximity between Ms. Zabell’s exposure to HIV and her dismissal, Medpace’s changing rational, and unresolved questions of fact regarding Ms. Zabell’s allegedly poor performance.

This case is illustrative of the mistreatment employees often experience. Fully competent disabled workers are ostracized in their workplaces and robbed of their much-needed income over vicious stereotypes and unfounded fears. These myths are so pervasive that Medpace may have discriminated against Ms. Zabell whom it only believed had HIV. Laws such as the ADA aim to protect the disabled and those perceived as disabled against the maltreatment in the workplace.

If you believe your employer illegally discriminated against you because of your disability, please contact The Harman Firm, LLP.