EEOC sues retirement community manager Erickson Living over alleged employee discrimination

Catonsville-based Erickson Living Management allegedly violated an anti-discrimination law when it fired an employee, according to a lawsuit filed Friday by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The company, which manages two retirement communities in the Baltimore area, is accused of terminating one of its directors in Catonsville after she complained the company was mistreating another worker over that worker’s disabilities. Erickson Living manages Oak Crest in Parkville and Charlestown in Catonsville, among about a dozen communities across the country.

A spokesman for the company said Erickson Living is committed to practicing non-discrimination in all of its employment actions.

“While we deny the allegations raised in this case, we are not commenting further on this pending litigation,” said spokesman Dan Dunne, adding that the company’s commitment to non-discrimination is reflected in its policies for employees and job applications.

The lawsuit says Felecia West, Erickson Living’s director of health services, talent development and global programs, complained to the company’s human resources department in December 2016 that her subordinate was being mistreated because of the way the employee’s disabilities were perceived by others. West also said she was worried she would be retaliated against for reporting what she believed was an abuse of the company’s system for managing employee performance, according to the lawsuit.

West and her subordinate were terminated in January 2017 under a purported company restructuring, the lawsuit claims. The two women were the only employees terminated as a result of the restructuring.

The lawsuit seeks to collect back pay for West with interest, along with other compensation for the ordeal to cover emotional distress and expenses associated with job searches.

West was hired for the position in October 2014 and was charged with creating and managing training for Erickson’s health care staff. The lawsuit says West consistently received strong performance reviews.

The problem started in August 2016, according to the lawsuit, when West was told by her boss that her subordinate had problems with her “presentation style,” which was at odds with West’s observations and the employee’s performance evaluations.

The employee requested leave to attend doctors’ appointments related to her disability, which was anxiety and bipolar disorder, according to the lawsuit. The woman told West that she was worried her conditions contributed to how others viewed her in the workplace. West approved the employee’s leave and told a supervisor that she believed the behaviors for which the woman was being scrutinized were a result of her disability.

The EECO says the actions violate the Americans with Disabilities Act that prohibits employers from retaliating against workers for opposing discrimination on the job.

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court in Maryland. It comes after the two sides failed to reach a settlement. Talks began in September.

“The protections against retaliation are vital to our enforcement of civil rights laws,” Debra M. Lawrence, EEOC regional attorney, said in a statement. “Retaliation can deter victims and witnesses from reporting work­place discrimination, which impermissibly interferes with our mission.”

Jamie R. Williamson, district director for the EEOC in Philadelphia, said the lawsuit should be a reminder to all employers to investigate internal complaints of discrimination “and not retaliate against those brave enough to oppose perceived discrimination.”

The case was first opened by the EEOC’s Baltimore field office, which is part of the Philadelphia district.

Baltimore Sun reporter Lorraine Mirabella contributed to this article.

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