by Hayley Fowler, McClatchy/TNS | January 5, 2022
A woman with autism who worked for a company on the coast of North Carolina said she was flagged by human resources for “unprofessional” communication.
Given that communication is something she struggles with as a person with autism, her lawyer said, the woman asked for help understanding what was considered unprofessional. But instead of granting that request, the company fired her.
Now she’s suing.
In a lawsuit filed Dec. 27 in the Eastern District of North Carolina, the woman said CastleBranch Inc.’s decision to fire her violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, a civil rights law that bars discrimination based on disability in all facets of public life.
CastleBranch is a compliance management and screening company based in Wilmington, N.C.
A representative for CastleBranch and the woman’s attorney did not immediately respond to McClatchy News’ request for comment early this week.
The woman’s lawyer said in court filings that she has been diagnosed with Level 1 Autism Spectrum Disorder.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, individuals with autism may have “challenges with social communication, restricted interests, and repetitive behavior.” There are varying degrees of severity, which is why it’s categorized as a spectrum.
The woman who is suing CastleBranch said autism limits her “ability to communicate, engage in face-to-face communications, initiate conversations, and to respond as expected,” the complaint states. As a result, she receives professional support services — including help preparing for job interviews and assistance with communication needs, her lawyer said.
The woman was hired as a clinical screening specialist at CastleBranch in June 2020, according to the lawsuit. Her primary job responsibility was to screen documents provided by medical students and nurses before they started clinical rotations.
She reportedly told her supervisor after she was hired that she has autism.
About six months after she started, the woman started experiencing complications from fibroids in her uterus that required multiple visits to the doctor, her lawyer said.
Last January, four days after she missed work for a doctor’s appointment and subsequently asked to work from home for medical reasons, the woman was placed on a 30-day performance improvement plan, according to the complaint. A representative from HR reportedly told her it was because of “unprofessional” communication on the company’s instant messaging platform.
During the meeting, her attorney said, the woman reminded them she has autism.
“(She) asked if someone could explain to her what type of messages were considered unprofessional, she requested that one of her peers be a sounding board for her to vet her communications, and she also requested that someone be present with her for disciplinary meetings,” the complaint states.
The woman’s lawyer said she was seeking a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. But instead of giving her an answer, HR reportedly told her she had to sign off on the plan if she wanted to have her work-from-home request approved.
She ultimately agreed.
The performance improvement plan expired on Feb. 7, 2021, without further incident, according to the lawsuit.
But during that time, her lawyer said, the woman was not provided with someone to vet her workplace communications nor was she given any training on better communication strategies.
The woman found out in late February that she’d need surgery to remove the fibroids and requested a medical leave of absence, according to the complaint.
Two days later, she was fired.
The woman’s supervisor and two human resources representatives were on the phone during the conversation, her lawyer said. They reportedly told her the reason for her termination was “unprofessional communication in instant messages.”
“When (she) asked what messages were unprofessional, she was told that ‘the fact you have to ask that question is unprofessional in itself,’” the lawsuit states.
The woman’s attorney said she struggled with anxiety after she was fired and while she searched for a new job. She also had trouble sleeping and sought counseling.
The lawsuit seeks back pay, front pay, lost benefits, compensatory damages for emotional distress, punitive damages and attorneys’ fees to cover the cost of litigation.
CastleBranch has not yet responded to the complaint, court documents show.
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