Federal authorities are suing on behalf of a woman they say was illegally fired from her office job in Eden Prairie because she needed crutches to get around the workplace after knee surgery.
Employer Solutions Group (ESG), a payroll servicing company, violated the U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act when it fired Shannon Enstad in April 2018, according to a lawsuit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis.
ESG responded Wednesday by saying it will fight the suit and in the meantime is willing to rehire Enstad.
The EEOC alleged that ESG explained to the 38-year-old Mound woman that she lost her job “because she was not 100 percent healed” from surgery and asserted “without any objective evidence that [she] would be a safety risk if she returned on crutches.”
Enstad, who was an account manager, needed the crutches for a short time after surgery on an anterior cruciate ligament that she tore in February 2018, about a month after being hired on a probationary basis. She soon had surgery, was cleared medically to go back to work with no restrictions on April 30, 2018, but was quickly told she was fired, the suit alleges.
“When I read the termination e-mail, I cried,” Enstad said in an interview with the Star Tribune. “I couldn’t believe what I was reading, especially since I had just spoken with ESG the same day and was told they were excited to have me back. ... I was full of emotions: sadness, anger, hurt and humiliated.”
Carissa Huffman, ESG’s claims and benefits manager, disagreed with much of what the agency contends in the suit, which was filed last week, including that Enstad was fired because she needed to use crutches while at work.
“We didn’t receive a note from a doctor until a few days after we decided to end her employment,” said Huffman, adding that ESG intends to challenge the suit in court.
Huffman added that Enstad had at least five times given a date for coming back to the office only to change her mind, so the company fired her because it “didn’t know when or if she ever was going to return to work” following the injury, suffered at home.
Noting that Enstad was a good worker during her brief time on the job, Huffman said ESG “extended an offer to her [Tuesday] to come back to work. We hope she accepts it.” She said the offer has no strings attached.
The EEOC said it tried to reach a settlement with the company on Enstad’s behalf before suing. “The issue here was so minor,” said Julianne Bowman, district director of the EEOC’s Chicago office. “This employee needed to use crutches for a short time after returning from short-term disability leave. The employer fired her for it, which was inappropriate, shortsighted and unlawful.”
Enstad said the firing meant for her “stress, lost wages and the uncertainty of not knowing how long it would take to find work. It was fear of how am I going to take care of my family?” She said she did land a new job more than seven months later.
One of ESG’s co-owners, Ross Plaetzer, said he tried to help Enstad financially during her time recuperating by taking her off probation early and making her a permanent employee, a move that allowed her to collect 12 weeks of disability payments that amounted to roughly two-thirds of her pay.
The EEOC is seeking to have Enstad reinstated as an account manager and receive back pay and benefits as well as compensation for “emotional pain, suffering, inconvenience, loss of enjoyment of life, and humiliation,” the suit reads. The agency also wants ESG to pay punitive damages for “its malicious and reckless conduct” in firing Enstad.