A radiologist who claims he was forced to resign after requesting to work from home has settled his discrimination lawsuit with a New York hospital.
Although the case was resolved without a definitive win, legal analysts say the complaint raises important questions about whether some physicians have the right to work from home.
Since the pandemic, employers across the country have become more accepting of professionals working remotely.
Richard Heiden, MD, sued New York City Health and Hospitals in 2020, claiming discrimination and retaliation violations under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the New York State Human Rights Law. Dr. Heiden, who has ulcerative colitis, had asked to work off-site during the start of the pandemic, but the hospital denied his accommodation request. Shortly later, administrators accused Dr. Heiden of poor performance and requested he resign or administrators would terminate him, according to his lawsuit.
Attorneys for New York City Health and Hospitals contended that Dr. Heiden was a poorly performing radiologist who was undergoing a performance review at the time of his accommodation request. The radiologist’s departure was related to the results of the review and had nothing to do with his disability or accommodation request, according to the hospital.
The undisclosed settlement ends a 3-year court battle between Dr. Heiden and the hospital corporation.
In an email, Laura Williams, an attorney for the hospital corporation, said that “the settlement was in the best interest of all parties.”
Dr. Heiden and his attorneys also did not respond to requests for comment.
A critical piece to the puzzle is understanding who is protected under the ADA and is therefore entitled to reasonable accommodations, said Doron Dorfman, JSD, an associate professor at Seton Hall University Law School in Newark, N.J., who focuses on disability law.
A common misconception is that only physicians with a physical disability are “disabled,” he said. However, under the law, a disabled individual is anyone with a physical or mental impairment – including mental illness – that limits major life activities; a person with a history of such impairment; or a person who is perceived by others as having an impairment.
“The law is much broader than many people think,” he said. “I think a lot of people don’t think about those with invisible disabilities, such as people with allergies, those who are immunocompromised, those with chronic illnesses. A lot of people don’t see themselves as disabled, and a lot of employers don’t see them as disabled.”
Working from home has not historically been considered a “reasonable accommodation” under the ADA, Mr. Dorfman said. However, that appears to be changing.
“There has been a sea change,” Mr. Dorfman said. “The question is coming before the courts more frequently, and recent legal decisions show judges may be altering their views on the subject.”
What led to the doctor’s lawsuit?
Dr. Heiden, a longtime radiologist, had practiced at Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center for about a year when he requested to work remotely. (Lincoln is operated by New York City Health and Hospitals.) At the time, the governor of New York had ordered a statewide lockdown because of COVID-19, and Dr. Heiden expressed concern that his ulcerative colitis made him a high-risk individual for the virus, according to court documents.
In his March 22, 2020, request, Dr. Heiden said that, except for fluoroscopy, his job could be done entirely from his home, according to aof the case. He also offered to pay for any costs associated with the remote work setup.
Around the same time, New York City Health and Hospitals permitted its facilities to issue a limited number of workstations to radiologists to facilitate remote work in the event of COVID-related staffing shortages. Administrators were in the process of acquiring remote radiology workstations and determining which radiologists at Lincoln would receive them, according to the case summary.
On March 24, the chair of radiology at Lincoln met with Dr. Heiden to review the results of a recent focused professional practice evaluation (FPPE). An FPPE refers to an intensive review of an expansive selection of patient cases handled by the subject physician. During the meeting, the chair that claimed Dr. Heiden was a poor performer and was accurate in his assessments 93.8% of the time, which was below the hospital’s 97% threshold, according to Dr.. Dr. Heiden disagreed with the results, and the two engaged in several more meetings.
Meanwhile, Dr. Heiden’s accommodation request was forwarded to other administrators. In an email introduced into court evidence, the chair indicated he did not support the accommodation, writing that Dr. Heiden’s “skill set does not meet the criteria for the initial installations” of the workstations.
On March 26, 2020, the chair allegedly asked Dr. Heiden to either resign or he would be terminated and reported to the New York State Office of Professional Medical Conduct. Four days later, Dr. Heiden learned that his accommodation request had been denied. He resigned on April 2, 2020.
In his lawsuit, Dr. Heiden claimed that the hospital discriminated against him on the basis of his disability in violation of ADA by denying him equal terms and conditions of employment and failing to provide a reasonable accommodation.
The defendants, who included the radiology chair, did not dispute that Dr. Heiden was asked to resign or that administrators warned termination, but they argued the impetus was his FPPE results and a history of inaccurate interpretations. Other clinicians and physicians had expressed concerns about Dr. Heiden’s “lack of clarity [and] interpretive errors,” according to deposition testimony. The hospital emphasized the FPPE had concluded before Dr. Heiden’s accommodation request was made.
New York City Health and Hospitals requested a federal judge dismiss the lawsuit for lack of valid claims. In January 2023, U.S. District Judge Lewis Liman allowed the case to proceed, ruling that some of Dr. Heiden’s claims had merit.
“Plaintiff has satisfied his obligation to proffer sufficient evidence to create an inference of retaliatory or discriminatory intent,” Judge Liman wrote in his decision. “[The chair] had not always planned to ask for plaintiff’s resignation based on the results of the FPPE completed on March 10, 2020. The decision to ask for that resignation arose shortly after the request for the accommodation. And there is evidence from which the jury could find that [the chair] was not receptive to making the accommodation.”
A jury trial was scheduled for July 2023, but the parties reached a settlement on May 31, 2023.