The Town of Amherst, Massachusetts, reportedly settled a disability discrimination claim brought by a former employee with multiple sclerosis (MS). The former employee, Ellen Bokina, worked for Amherst as a sanitarian and environmental health coordinator until Amherst fired her in August 2009. Amherst fired her a year after she filed a workers compensation claim due to injuries she sustained when she fell and six months after Amherst learned, through a medical exam, that she had MS. Ms. Bokina alleged that the Amherst Town Manager, Laurence Shaffer, commenced “a campaign of slander and discrimination” against her after he learned about her MS. She further alleged that Mr. Shaffer told Amherst’s former health director that he never should have hired Bokina.
The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) investigated Ms. Bokina’s claims and found probable cause to believe that Amherst and Shaffer had discriminated against Bokina because of her disability. Amherst settled the case for $195,000 broken down as follows: $40,000 for lost wages, $16,000 for lost benefits, $56,000 for emotional distress damages, and $83,000 for legal fees and expenses. Because Amherst was insured, however, its insurance covered all but $7500 of the settlement.
There are some elements to this case that are relatively common in disability discrimination cases. Amherst’s alleged motivation for terminating Ms. Bokina seems to have been linked to her workers’ compensation claim and the potential for her to file additional workers’ compensation claims in the future because of her MS. MS has the potential to weaken a person’s limbs and adversely affect her coordination. Thus, Amherst may have thought that the risk of Ms. Bokina falling again was too high. These fears that disabled people will file workers’ compensation claims sometimes motivate employers to discriminate against them.