Wednesday, April 17, 2024

CastleBranch refutes claim it discriminated against former employee with autism

The lawsuit against CastleBranch claims the company fired an employee with autism after ignoring her requests for reasonable accommodations. (Port City Daily/File)

SOUTHEASTERN NC — Wilmington-based screening firm CastleBranch has sweepingly denied accusations levied in a federal lawsuit from a former employee with autism, who claims she was fired in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

Arielle Whitaker, a Brunswick County resident, sued CastleBranch in federal court two days after Christmas last year. Whitaker alleged that after informing supervisors of her autism diagnosis, she was denied a request for reasonable accommodations in her work as a document screener and, ultimately, that she was terminated with little explanation because of unprofessional communications. 

READ MORE: Former employee files civil rights suit against CastleBranch, claims ADA violations

CastleBranch responded to the lawsuit Mar. 4. Aside from acknowledging Whitaker’s employment and date of termination call — and that she informed a supervisor of her autism at one point — attorneys for the company denied the central claims of the lawsuit. 

Whitaker started work at CastleBranch around June 15, 2020, according to the lawsuit. In January of last year, a medical condition forced her to undergo treatments and miss work; she requested to work from home for medical reasons on Jan. 4, 2021, according to the lawsuit.

On Jan. 8, 2021, CastleBranch placed Whitaker on a 30-day “performance improvement plan,” citing “‘unprofessional’ communication on [CastleBranch’s] instant messaging platform.” 

At the meeting concerning the improvement plan, “Ms. Whitaker reminded them that she had Autism and that she was not sure how her communications were unprofessional,” according to the lawsuit. 

“Before she signed the [performance improvement plan], Ms. Whitaker asked if someone could explain to her what type of messages were considered unprofessional, she requested that one of her peers be a sounding board for her to vet her communications, and she also requested that someone be present with her for disciplinary meetings,” according to the lawsuit.

In response to the lawsuit, CastleBranch denied that Whitaker requested those measures; it also said Whitaker’s “alleged requested accommodations” would have imposed undue hardship and “are not reasonable.” Both parties acknowledge Whitaker’s work-from-home request was granted the same day she learned of the performance improvement plan. Both sides also agreed that during the course of the improvement plan, CastleBranch did not raise more concerns about Whitaker’s communications. 

On Feb. 24, Whitaker was fired on a call that included multiple company officials, and later received a termination letter in the mail, according to the lawsuit.  

Attorneys for CastleBranch wrote that on the call, Whitaker “was informed that [CastleBranch] believed that she had engaged in unprofessional communication through instant messaging, which included unprofessional communication by Plaintiff towards coworkers in late February.”

Whitaker’s attorney wrote in the lawsuit: “When Ms. Whitaker asked what messages were unprofessional, she was told that ‘the fact you have to ask that question is unprofessional in itself.’”

According to attorneys for CastleBranch, Whitaker “failed to exhaust her administrative remedies.” They added Whitaker’s termination “was based on good cause, reasonable factors other than her disability or any retaliatory intent, and legitimate, non-discriminatory and non-retaliatory reason.” The company said the same “employment decisions” concerning Whitaker would have been made regardless of her Autism.

Attorneys for Whitaker and CastleBranch declined to comment. CastleBranch asserted Whitaker did not file a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) — a procedural precursor in some federal discrimination lawsuits — in a timely fashion (180 calendar days to file a charge). The company suggested the lawsuit should be dismissed with prejudice. 

The EEOC granted Whitaker a “notice of right to sue” on Sept. 28, 2021. In her filing to the commission on Aug. 26, 2021, Whitaker reported the discrimination took place on Feb. 26, 2021. The EEOC processed her request as timely.

“I was told that I should not tell my coworkers how their work should be done,” Whitaker wrote in her filing to the EEOC. Around the time of November 2020, according to Whitaker, “a coworker of mine messaged me telling me to stop talking too much. I reported it but she has not had any disciplinary actions. … I believe I have been discriminated against because of my disability in violation of Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as amended.”

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