Federal discrimination lawsuit against Norfolk Southern IDs locals with diabetes, insomnia

A federal lawsuit filed Wednesday in Pittsburgh alleges that Norfolk Southern Corporation refused to hire or continue to employ workers with medical issues. (James St. John/ Wikimedia Commons)
A federal lawsuit filed Wednesday in Pittsburgh alleges that Norfolk Southern Corporation refused to hire or continue to employ workers with medical issues. (James St. John/ Wikimedia Commons)

Norfolk Southern Corp. is accused of illegal, company-wide discrimination against workers and job applicants based on medical conditions and disabilities, such as cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure and sleeplessness, according to a federal complaint filed Wednesday by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Among the job applicants identified in the complaint were three who sought to work for the company in Norfolk.

For nearly a decade, Norfolk Southern and its entity Norfolk Southern Railway Co. are accused of implementing a “blanket policy” that illegally discriminated against employees and job applicants with disabilities and histories of disabilities, thus violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and Civil Rights Act of 1991, according to the EEOC’s complaint.

From “at least” July 16, 2008, the company used medical information gathered by their internal medical department to “screen out” employees and candidates who should be “medically disqualified” from a position they held or sought based on past and existing disabilities, the EEOC alleges.

In some cases, the medically-based discrimination happened even after doctors outside of Norfolk Southern’s internal medical department cleared employees and applicants to work, according to the EEOC’s complaint.

In addition to denying employment, the EEOC alleges that Norfolk Southern “denied reasonable accommodations” to disabled people.

Through a spokesperson, Norfolk Southern denied the allegations.

“Although Norfolk Southern typically does not comment on pending litigation, the EEOC’s position grossly misrepresents our commitment to hiring and employing individuals with disabilities,” Jonathan Glass, public relations manager for Norfolk Southern, wrote in an email. “We take seriously our Equal Employment Opportunity responsibilities, and we plan to defend this meritless lawsuit vigorously. Norfolk Southern is confident that a comprehensive and unbiased assessment of the facts will demonstrate the fairness, integrity, and individualized care involved in our employment processes.”

Among eight people identified in the complaint were three who applied to work for the company in Norfolk.

Zenas Dowdell, a diabetic, applied for a paid summer internship in the human resources department in the spring of 2012, the complaint states. He disclosed that he has diabetes and hypertension and that he had a prescription for Tylenol No. 3; he also provided a note from his doctor saying he could work without restriction.

The EEOC alleges that Norfolk Southern declined to hire Dowdell because of his diabetes and high blood pressure and because his medical records revealed that he had a strained back.

Another man, Philip Tyson, applied to work as a forklift mechanic at the Norfolk facility in 2014. He’d been working as a forklift mechanic for 30 years but was medically disqualified by Norfolk Southern, and denied the job, because he had atrial fibrillation, according to the EEOC.

A third applicant, Michael Davis, applied for a track-laborer job in 2011 and disclosed that he’d occasionally taken medication for sleeplessness, according to the complaint.

Norfolk Southern required him to undergo further testing and a sleep test — which he paid for and passed — but he was denied the job based on a belief that Davis had “chronic insomnia,” according to the EEOC.

Other employees and job candidates across the country were denied work based on a range of conditions, such as cardiopulmonary and cardiovascular impairments, cancer, back and knee injuries and arthritis, the complaint states.

An Iraq War veteran named Adam Worthing was denied a job as a signal trainee at an Altoona, Penn. facility because Norfolk Southern “wrongly believed” he’d been previously diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, the EEOC said.

Norfolk Southern’s belief that Worthing had PTSD may have stemmed from the fact that he had one counseling session after he returned from Iraq because he had nightmares and hyper-vigilance; however, Worthing was never diagnosed with PTSD nor did he receive treatment, according to the complaint.

In 2011, Norfolk Southern didn’t hire a prospective conductor named Jason Phipps in Louisville, Ky. because he was receiving chemotherapy for lymphoma, the complaint alleged.

While he was applying for the job, Phipps went through pre-employment medical screening and questioning where he informed the company that he’d been diagnosed with lymphoma and was in treatment. He told Norfolk Southern that he had to undergo two additional rounds of chemotherapy in the upcoming months, according to the EEOC.

A man named Terry Vogel, who was already working for Norfolk Southern as a conductor, was placed on unpaid medical suspension after the company discovered that he had diabetes, the complaint alleged.

Norfolk Southern discovered his blood sugar levels were elevated during a June 2011 medical exam and requested that Vogel give them medical records related to his diabetes, which he provided in October 2011, according to the EEOC.

A few months later, Vogel was placed on unpaid medical suspension because the company claimed his diabetes wasn’t controlled well enough. Although Vogel’s personal doctor told him he could return to work on March 30, 2012, he wasn’t allowed to return to his job until Nov. 8, 2012, the complaint states.

The EEOC lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.

The commission asks the court to permanently enjoin Norfolk Southern from refusing to hire or suspending employees with disabilities and enforcing qualifications that screen out or tend to screen out disabled people.

In addition, the EEOC is seeking remedies such as back pay, reinstatement and job-search expenses.

The EEOC did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.

View the full document below.

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U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Norfolk Southern Corp.

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Adrienne Mayfield is an award-winning, multi-media journalist hailing from Clermont, Fla. She moved to Lynchburg, Va. on a whim when she was 19, and worked her way to Hampton Roads in 2013. Adrienne is passionate about telling people stories via covering public safety and the judicial system. She isn’t afraid to take a heads-on approach to covering crime, including knocking on doors to get the details police aren’t sharing. Adrienne is a 2014 Old Dominion University graduate who still lives within walking distance of the college. You may see her cruising around Downtown Norfolk on her bike, enjoying a sandwich from Grilled Cheese Bistro or playing fetch with her dog, Greta, at the Colonial Place dog park.