Health & Medicine

Dignity Health will pay $570,000 to settle discrimination suit filed by blind worker in Redding

Dignity Health will pay out $570,000 to settle a disability discrimination lawsuit filed by an employee fired by the company’s Mercy Medical Center in Redding, according to an announcement Thursday by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Alina Sorling had worked as a food service technician on the Mercy Redding campus for 10 years when she suffered a severe illness that left her with vision loss, her lawsuit stated. She successfully trained, though, to be able to perform the sorts of everyday tasks she would have to do at work: cashiering, grilling, cleaning and stocking, court records show, and she also mastered the skills needed to continue independent living.

Once she had done so, her suit stated, she asked in February 2015 to return to work and provided her employer with a list of accommodations that she or the California Department of Rehabilitation could provide to ensure she could accomplish her duties. Mercy Medical rejected the suggestions and fired her in June 2015, the lawsuit stated, citing a vision requirement that the company had never tested Sorling for in her 10 years of employment.

“After unexpectedly losing her vision and working incredibly hard to rehabilitate herself and learn new skills, Ms. Sorling was ready to go back to work without restrictions for an employer she had served loyally for over a decade,” said William Tamayo, director of the EEOC’s San Francisco district office. “Instead of allowing her to demonstrate her abilities, Dignity Health excluded her due to fixed assumptions about her disability and limitations.”

As part of the settlement, Dignity also agreed to take steps to prevent this type of discrimination in future. The company did not admit any wrongdoing or liability as part of a consent decree.

Leaders of Dignity Health, in a statement sent to The Sacramento Bee on Thursday, said they value their employees and support those with disabilities.

“For this particular situation, after months of time and effort, we were not able to provide an accommodation to address Ms. Sorling’s needs without comprising her safety and the safety of others,” the company stated. “This resolution will allow Ms. Sorling to move forward with her life, and we wish her the very best.”

Sorling’s lawsuit stated that Mercy Redding refused to work with an analyst from the California Department of Rehabilitation to do a workplace accommodation assessment. Between February 2015 and May 2015, Sorling noted in her lawsuit, she told her employer that equipment such as a talking digital thermometer, a talking cash register, a bar code scanner, a talking credit card terminal, and an iPhone could help her do the work same work she had done before.

Mercy Redding, however, rejected these and other suggestions Sorling made, the lawsuit alleged.

The EEOC worked with Sorling’s independent counsels, Timothy Elder and Scott LaBarre. In lawsuits in federal and state courts, they alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act. The laws require employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees unless it would be an undue hardship.

The EEOC had its investigators look into Sorling’s allegations and then tried to negotiate a settlement through its conciliation process. When that process failed, it filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco.

The settlement provides $570,000 in lost wages, compensatory damages and attorneys’ fees, and it requires Dignity Health to update its policies, proce­dures and training. The EEOC said the company train its leadership and employees in recognizing and eliminating discrimination and will report to the EEOC all complaints of disability discrimination for the three-year term of the consent decree. Dignity also must post a notice for employees about the decree and employees’ rights under federal law, the agency said.

In the EEOC news release, Sorling stated: “Speaking out against discrimination at work is hard, but I am really glad I did. I am hopeful this settlement will help to make the medical center more open to workers with vision loss and other disabilities. I am thankful to the EEOC and my attorneys for standing by me and seeing this through.”

She now works part-time in a grocer’s deli, Elder said in a telephone interview Thursday, and she does food preparation work. Elder added that she is still hoping to find full-time work.

“I think this case should send a strong message that blind people can safely work in a commercial kitchen in the food service industry,” Elder said. “There’s a whole California program called vocational rehabilitation that’s really designed to help figure out accommodations issues, and if you look at the allegations, the employer didn’t really want to work with the California Department of Rehabilitation to look at potential accommodations. That’s a very robust system to help disabled people get into vocations.”

In January, Dignity Health merged with Catholic Health Initiatives to form Chicago-based CommonSpirit Health. The combined company operates in 21 states, and its facilities are readily accessible to one in four Americans.

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Cathie Anderson covers health care for The Bee. Growing up, her blue-collar parents paid out of pocket for care. She joined The Bee in 2002, with roles including business columnist and features editor. She previously worked at papers including the Dallas Morning News, Detroit News and Austin American-Statesman.