PHILADELPHIA – Montgomery County argues that it had the right to fire one of its former employees when she refused to wear a mask in the workplace during the COVID-19 pandemic – though she alleged that refusal was only to avoid triggering symptoms of her post-traumatic stress disorder.

Laura Bidwell of Pennsburg first filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on Aug. 21 versus Montgomery County, of Norristown.

“Plaintiff Bidwell was employed by the defendant from on or about June 28, 2010 until on or about Jan. 3, 2022, the date of her termination. Throughout her employment with the defendant, plaintiff Bidwell held various positions and earned several promotions. Plaintiff Bidwell began her employment in the position of Telecommunicator and ultimately achieved the position of Tier 2 Dispatcher, which is the position that she held at the time of her termination. At all times relevant hereto, plaintiff Bidwell maintained a satisfactory job performance in her various roles,” the suit said.

“By way of background, plaintiff Bidwell suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Said medical condition constitutes a disability within the meanings of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, in that it substantially impairs one or more of plaintiff Bidwell’s major life activities, including, but not limited to, sleeping, interacting with others, breathing and normal stress response. In or about August of 2021, defendant reinstated a masking policy within the workplace in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic. Per defendant’s policy, plaintiff Bidwell was required to wear a mask while walking to and from her work station and in common areas, but could remove the mask while seated at her work station.”

The suit added that wearing a mask causes plaintiff Bidwell, who is a veteran, to experience exacerbated symptoms of her disability, including panic attacks and breathing difficulties – and furthermore, that the mask policy was “generally unenforced, as numerous employees of defendant frequently moved about the workplace without a mask, or while wearing a mask improperly, without repercussion.”

“On or about Sept. 3, 2021, Brian Spatz, Emergency Communications Supervisor, informed plaintiff Bidwell that she was required to wear a mask covering her nose and mouth while outside of her work station. On the same date, plaintiff Bidwell met with Tori Rosa, Platoon Commander, Matthew Markland, Platoon Commander and Jennifer Cass, Deputy Director, and requested a religious exemption to the masking policy. Plaintiff Bidwell did not request a medical based exemption at that time, as she was fearful to disclose her mental health-related disability given the nature of her job. Following said conversation, Cass sent an email to plaintiff Bidwell requesting specific information about plaintiff Bidwell’s religion and religious beliefs, and plaintiff Bidwell provided the same to Cass,” the suit stated.

“On or about Sept. 8, 2021, plaintiff Bidwell learned that defendant had denied her exemption request. As such, plaintiff Bidwell contacted Donna Pardieu, Director of Human Resources, to discuss defendant’s decision. Pardieu advised plaintiff Bidwell that defendant would not consider exemption requests to the masking policy for religious reasons and would only consider exemptions for medical reasons. Thereafter, plaintiff Bidwell attempted to wear a mask in compliance with defendant’s policy, despite the fact that wearing the same severely exacerbated the symptoms of her disability and caused her to experience debilitating panic attacks. However, plaintiff Bidwell’s colleagues and superiors continued to violate said policy on a regular basis. On or about Sept. 16, 2021, plaintiff Bidwell provided documentation from her physician advising that she could not wear a mask due to her disability and requested an exemption as a reasonable accommodation for the same. However, defendant rejected said documentation insomuch as it was not on ‘professional letterhead.”

On Sept. 20, 2021, plaintiff Bidwell’s physician provided additional documentation to defendant on the letterhead requested, but plaintiff Bidwell said she heard nothing until Sept. 27, 2021, at which time Tara Katzman, Compliance Officer, advised her that her request for accommodation was denied.

From early October to early December 2021, Bidwell took leave from her work under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Ahead of her Dec. 29, 2021 return date, Bidwell said she advised that she was “still medically unable to wear a mask and requested to discuss how defendant planned to accommodate her upon her return.”

“Two weeks later, on or about Dec. 16, 2021, plaintiff Bidwell received a response from Pardieu stating only that she would ‘be in touch.’ Later the same day, Pardieu informed plaintiff Bidwell that defendant planned to post a Veteran Services Officer position and suggested that plaintiff Bidwell apply for the same. As such, plaintiff Bidwell applied for the role on Dec. 21, 2021, the first date that it was posted. On or about Dec. 24, 2021, Pardieu informed plaintiff Bidwell that defendant expected that she would fully comply with the masking policy upon her return to work. In response, plaintiff Bidwell expressed that she was looking forward to returning, but reiterated that she could not comply with the policy due to her disability. Plaintiff Bidwell explained that she felt forced to utilize medical leave as a result of defendant’s failure to accommodate her, and expressed her disappointment with defendant’s lack of communication and continued refusal to accommodate,” the suit said.

“On or about Dec. 29, 2021, plaintiff Bidwell returned to work. However, immediately upon her arrival, defendant sent plaintiff Bidwell home from work based upon her violation of the masking policy. The following day, on or about Dec. 30, 2021, Rosa and Cass issued plaintiff Bidwell a final warning regarding the masking policy. Plaintiff Bidwell explained that her disability caused her to experience panic attacks, which were triggered and exacerbated by wearing a mask, and expressed that she only wished defendant would work with her. Nonetheless, plaintiff Bidwell was sent home from work. On or about Jan. 3, 2022, defendant terminated plaintiff Bidwell’s employment based upon her failure to comply with the masking policy. Plaintiff Bidwell believes and avers that defendant terminated her employment based on her actual and/or perceived disability and/or record of impairment (post-traumatic stress disorder) and/or in retaliation for requesting a reasonable accommodation for her disability.”

UPDATE

Montgomery County answered the suit on Oct. 28 and explained that Bidwell was “never required to wear her mask during her entire shift as a 9-1-1 Telecommunicator”, that it was estimated that during her typical 12-hour shift, Bidwell would only need to utilize her mask for no more than approximately one hour and that “it should be noted that Bidwell made no complaints whatsoever about wearing a mask the first time the policy was established as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The County’s Human Resources Department added it sent Bidwell documentation to be completed regarding her request for a religious exemption – but that Bidwell failed to return it or provide any other support for her request.

The answer also opined that when Bidwell submitted her letter seeking a religious exemption from the masking policy, that it was “both ironic and disappointing that her ‘moral and ethical codes’ did not prevent her from making false, disingenuous and misleading statements about her reasons for an exemption to the policy.”

The answer continued that Bidwell “failed to engage in good faith discussions as to any reasonable accommodations to allow Bidwell to comply with the County’s masking policy” and when the defendant suggested that Bidwell wear a face shield instead of a mask, “Bidwell declined to wear a face shield…and declined to change her shift” and “at no time during this long process did Bidwell offer any alternative suggestions to the masking requirement,” according to the answer.

“Plaintiff has failed to state a valid claim upon which relief can be granted as to defendant. Defendant asserts all the defenses, immunities, and limitations of damages available to it pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act and avers that plaintiff’s remedies are limited exclusively thereto. Defendant asserts all the defenses, immunities, and limitations of damages available to it pursuant to the Family Medical Leave Act and avers that plaintiff’s remedies are limited exclusively thereto. Defendant asserts all the defenses, immunities, and limitations of damages available to it pursuant to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act and avers that plaintiff’s remedies are limited exclusively thereto. Defendant asserts all the defenses, immunities, and limitations of damages available to it pursuant to the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act and avers that plaintiff’s remedies are limited exclusively thereto. Answering defendant asserts all the defenses, immunities, and limitations of damages available to it pursuant to the Pennsylvania Workers Compensation Act, and avers that plaintiff’s remedies are limited exclusively thereto,” per the answer’s affirmative defenses.

“Plaintiff’s claims are barred, in whole or in part, to the extent that she has failed to take reasonable measures to mitigate any or all damages; and defendants are entitled to an offset of any mitigation by plaintiff. Plaintiff has failed to state a valid claim for punitive damages as the same relates to defendant. Pursuant to applicable statute and/or Court decisions, punitive damages cannot be assessed against defendant County of Montgomery. At all times material to this civil action, defendant has acted in a reasonable, proper, and lawful manner. Further, all employment actions taken with respect to plaintiff were based upon legitimate, justified, non-retaliatory reasons, and in the exercise of good faith. The termination of plaintiff’s at-will employment with the County of Montgomery was permissible under Pennsylvania applicable statutes and case law. Plaintiff as an at-will employee and as a matter of law, was subject to termination with little or no notice. Defendant had legitimate non-discriminating reasons for all employment decisions it made regarding plaintiff.”

For counts of disability discrimination, failure to accommodate and retaliation under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the Family and Medical Leave Act and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, the plaintiff is seeking a rate of pay and other benefits and emoluments of employment to which she would have been entitled had she not been subjected to unlawful discrimination and retaliation; front pay, if appropriate; punitive damages, liquidated damages, compensatory damages for future pecuniary losses, pain, suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish, loss of enjoyment of life and other non-pecuniary losses as allowable; pre- and post-judgment interest, costs of suit, attorney and expert witness fees as allowed by law and such other relief as is deemed just and proper.

The plaintiff is represented by Sidney L. Gold and Jamie L. Ford of Sidney L. Gold & Associates, in Philadelphia.

The defendant is represented by Milton Velez of the Montgomery County Solicitor’s Office, in Norristown.

U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania case 2:23-cv-03211

From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at [email protected]



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