Hamilton County pays out $270,000 for employee firings

Hamilton County pays out $270,000 for employee firings

January 20th, 2014 by Louie Brogdon in Local Regional News

The Hamilton County Courthouse stands in the heart of Chattanooga.

The Hamilton County Courthouse stands in the heart...

Photo by Jake Daniels /Times Free Press.

Hamilton County has spent $270,000 in the past three months settling two lawsuits levied by former employees who claim to have been fired for having disabilities.

Commissioners voted Wednesday to pay $180,000 to former health department public health nurse Nancy Beckham.

Beckham, who has rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia and degenerative disc disease, sued in September 2012 after she was fired for what her supervisor said was low performance at work.

According to Beckham's lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court, Beckham was given bad marks during evaluations because she couldn't beat her fellow nurses in a foot race.

The facility where Beckham worked had a "race to the bell" policy, in which nurses had to quickly get to the front of the office when the "new patient" bell rang. Because of her disabilities, Beckham was unable to walk as quickly as the other nurses, so she saw fewer patients each day, according to the lawsuit.

When she was fired on Feb. 21, 2012, the lawsuit claims, Beckham's supervisor cited low patient contact as one reason. Before her firing, Beckham also was not allowed to return to work after having two surgeries and three hospitalizations. Her attorney, Donna Mikel, said Friday that was because of a county policy that she finds particularly troubling.

Mikel said the policy requires employees to be able to perform 100 percent of the duties on their job description before returning after injury or illness. In other words, there's no light work designation or working recovery period.

That practice is an issue, because it means no county employee who is or becomes disabled could possibly return to work, Mikel said. Being disabled necessarily means the employee would not be 100 percent fit.

Mikel said the Americans with Disabilities Act was put in place to protect disabled workers. The law requires employers to make work opportunities available to disabled employees.

"Ms. Beckham is who the Americans with Disabilities Act was meant to protect. She's someone who had a disability but she wants very much to continue working," Mikel said.

Now, after losing her county job and her health insurance, Beckham's condition has deteriorated, Mikel said.

County Attorney Rheubin Taylor was not available for comment Friday, but Assistant County Attorney Dee Hobbs said Wednesday the county still held that Beckham's firing was just.

The settlement was a result of mediation and was in the best interest of Hamilton County taxpayers, he said.

The previous lawsuit by a former employee of Register of Deeds Pam Hurst was settled in November.

Commissioners agreed to pay $90,000 to former Deputy Clerk Gayla Moates, who sued on a claim of unjust termination after she was fired in November 2010. Moates, who has rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes, claimed she was fired after missing weeks of work because of her disability.

In a termination letter, Hurst wrote that Moates' need for time off for doctor's appointments and recovery was disruptive to the office, and she no longer had a job. Moates had worked there for 13 years and had good evaluations before she was diagnosed with the illness in 2005, according to court filings.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6481.