North Carolina Woman with Autism Sues Former Employer for Termination without Accommodation

Published January 21, 2022

A North Carolina woman with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has filed suit against her former employer CastleBranch after being fired over “unprofessional communication,” as reported by the Charlotte Observer. The unnamed woman with ASD attempted repeatedly to seek clarification on what precisely had been deemed “unprofessional” by the company in order to correct her behavior, but CastleBranch never elaborated. She also repeatedly asked for various accommodations to facilitate better communication, but her requests were ignored, and she was ultimately fired without the company explaining specific offenses or meeting her accommodation requests.

The suit was filed just before the new year in the Eastern District of North Carolina, and it stipulates that CastleBranch’s termination of the employee with ASD violates the woman’s civil rights and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). CastleBranch is an employee screening and compliance management company based in Wilmington, North Carolina.

ASD and communication

Through no fault of their own, casual social interactions can be difficult for people with ASD because they may not understand or respond to social cues in the manner that neurotypical people would generally expect. And the degree to which one struggles with social communication varies from person to person, which is why ASD is thought of as a spectrum, not a binary. Some individuals on that spectrum are deemed “high-functioning,” but even the most high-functioning adults with ASD may find it difficult to respond appropriately in social situations due to an inability to understand social relationships or read body language and emotions in others. Additionally, because individuals with ASD tend to approach their interests with a single-minded and passionate focus, when in casual conversation they may continually return to certain conversational topics or fail to identify when it’s appropriate to stop talking about their interests or fail to express interest in things others bring up. Also, people with ASD can have difficulty understanding sarcasm, slang, innuendo, and nuance.

According to the lawsuit, the North Carolina woman fired from CastleBranch has been diagnosed with Level 1 ASD, a condition that she says limits her “ability to communicate, engage in face-to-face communications, initiate conversations, and to respond as expected.” Due to these issues, she receives professional support services that help her prepare for job interviews and assist with her communication needs, according to the suit. And after being interviewed and hired by CastleBranch, the woman reports that she did indeed disclose her ASD diagnosis to superiors.  

What led to the termination

In early 2021, about six months after being hired by CastleBranch, the plaintiff began experiencing complications from uterine fibroids, a condition that required regular doctor’s appointments to treat. After missing work to attend a doctor’s appointment, the plaintiff was placed on a 30-day performance improvement plan, with HR reportedly telling her that this was necessary due to “unprofessional” communications she sent on the company’s instant messaging platform. The plaintiff then reminded HR representatives that she has ASD and asked for clarification as to which messages were deemed unprofessional and for what reason so that she could alter her behavior. Reportedly, HR did not specify what communication was inappropriate, responding only with “the fact you have to ask that question is unprofessional in itself.” Still attempting to seek reasonable accommodation due to her as per the ADA and federal law, the plaintiff requested that a colleague be assigned to serve as a type of sounding board for her to help her choose professional language for her communications, but the request was ignored. Nonetheless, her 30-day probationary period ended without any further communication issues, and the company seemed to have moved on. But then the plaintiff requested medical leave to have surgery to address her fibroid issues and was fired two days after making the request.

The facts as they are stated in the complaint indicate that perhaps the plaintiff’s termination had little to do with communication at all, but more likely was the result of a company unwilling to grant time off for medical reasons, itself a violation of numerous federal laws. But to what extent the termination was associated with communications, it’s important to acknowledge the faults in the medium that the supposed “unprofessional communications” took place. Textual communications are a rich environment for misinterpretation and miscommunication; even neurotypical people can have trouble parsing out meaning, tone, and humor in texts in the absence of in-person cues to clarify intention. The plaintiff being neurodivergent then would only compound those difficulties, especially if other parties were using slang or being sarcastic in their responses.

The lawsuit against CastleBranch seeks back pay, front pay, lost benefits, compensatory damages for emotional distress, punitive damages, and attorneys’ fees to cover the cost of litigation.

The North Carolina lawsuit comes on the heels of another termination of an employee with ASD that made headlines in late 2021. A McDonald’s franchise operator fired an autistic employee who had been with the company since 1981. Anthony Cardone worked as a grill cook for 37 years in the Camden, New Jersey area and was a beloved and valued employee who received many awards recognizing his performance and dedication. But when a new company bought the franchise he worked for in 2018, he was unceremoniously fired weeks into the change in ownership. Given his record of outstanding performance, the termination seemed without cause and related solely to his having ASD. Contending that Cardone’s firing violated the ADA and the Civil Rights Act, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed suit on his behalf seeking back pay with interest as well as punitive damages and compensation for emotional distress.

Lawsuits like this serve to highlight the need for improvements in how employers perceive and interact with neurodivergent employees, indicating that HR policies require a shift in attitude in order to not just accommodate employees with ASD, but to treat them with respect, kindness, and dignity.

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