Law360 (August 19, 2020, 9:41 PM EDT) -- An immunocompromised, 60-year-old health insurance executive in Miami was fired in violation of federal law over health issues that put her at greater risk of COVID-19 complications, she alleged in a lawsuit filed Wednesday in Florida federal court.
Julie Ferro alleged that local health plan Doctors HealthCare Plans Inc. and its CEO Rafael Perez violated the Family and Medical Leave Act when firing her in June, according to the Southern District of Florida complaint. Ferro says she has rheumatoid arthritis and high blood pressure, among other medical issues, and that she was dismissed because she has previously dealt with serious medical problems and likely will again.
"Unfortunately, Mr. Perez and Doctors HealthCare's disregard for employees' health in the workplace amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as their unlawful termination of Ms. Ferro because of her medical issues and protected leave fit into a set of other unlawful and/or discriminatory conduct that Mr. Perez engaged in," the complaint says.
When U.S. concern over the virus escalated in March, Perez dismissed COVID-19 as a flu-like illness and said the health crisis was being overhyped owing to it being an election year, according to the complaint.
As the disease bore down on the U.S., Perez issued work-from-home policies but also maintained that some people must still physically come into the office — even though, Ferro contended, her staff could have worked remotely.
Ferro was allowed to work from home after requesting the accommodation and providing a doctor's letter, but when the office reopened in late May she said she felt "pressured" to report to work in person.
Though Perez allegedly assured employees the office would be safe, Ferro said the facility lacked basic sanitary supplies. She added that she was "shocked" to see maskless colleagues abandoning social distancing practices.
Ferro also said her boss had made comments about her health before the onset of the pandemic.
"There is always something with you," Perez allegedly told her at one point.
In the suit, Ferro described multiple instances in which she had worked from home or had brief hospital stays due to her health issues and said she had never been advised of her FMLA rights or she would have applied for leave.
Perez fired her on June 8, saying "things were not working out" and giving vague reasons including a hand motion that she took to indicate her up-and-down health, Ferro said in the suit. The firing came despite an excellent recent performance review, a $25,000 raise at the end of 2019 and a $10,000 performance bonus just two weeks before she was dismissed, she noted.
Lawrence M. Pearson and Bryan L. Arbeit of Wigdor LLP, the attorneys representing Ferro, released a joint statement Wednesday.
"As the complaint makes clear, Mr. Perez was completely dismissive of COVID-19 from the get-go and prioritized resuming in-person operations over the health of his employees," they said. "Doctors HealthCare's decision to fire an accomplished and hardworking executive in the middle of a pandemic because of her immunocompromised status is not only morally repugnant, but also clearly runs afoul of the employment laws that were designed to prevent such behavior in the first place."
Counsel for Ferro had no additional comment beyond the firm's statement Wednesday, while a media representative for Doctors HealthCare could not immediately be reached.
Ferro is represented by Lawrence M. Pearson and Bryan L. Arbeit of Wigdor LLP.
Counsel information for the defendants was not immediately available Wednesday.
The case is Ferro v. Doctors HealthCare Plans Inc. et al., case number 1:20-cv-23449, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.
--Editing by Daniel King.
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