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Abdul-Azim v. Howard University Hospital

Court of Appeals of The District of Columbia

August 1, 2019

Khalil Abdul-Azim, Appellant,
Howard University Hospital, Appellee.

          Argued January 11, 2019

          Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CAB-799-15) (Hon. Robert R. Rigsby, Trial Judge)

          Sarah McDonough for appellant.

          Alan S. Block, with whom Andrew Butz was on the brief, for appellee.

          Before Thompson and McLeese, Associate Judges, and Edelman, Associate Judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. [*]


          McLeese, Associate Judge.

         Appellant Khalil Abdul-Azim sued his former employer, appellee Howard University Hospital (HUH), alleging that HUH discriminated against him on the basis of a perceived disability. The trial court granted summary judgment to HUH. We vacate and remand.


         Except as indicated, the following facts appear to be undisputed. Mr. Abdul-Azim began working at HUH in 1998 as a cardiology technician. He had an excellent performance record. In February 2014, Mr. Abdul-Azim was involved in a dispute with a coworker, Renaldon Perkins, regarding the treatment of a patient. Mr. Perkins received a formal letter of reprimand; Mr. Abdul-Azim was not disciplined. Both men returned to work after the incident.

         In April 2014, Mr. Abdul-Azim and Mr. Perkins were involved in a second incident that occurred during a heart-catheterization procedure. Mr. Abdul-Azim's account of that incident was that, believing that Mr. Perkins had omitted a procedure, Mr. Abdul-Azim walked over to Mr. Perkins, placed his hand on Mr. Perkins's shoulder, pointed to the monitor, and instructed Mr. Perkins to correct the omission. Mr. Perkins immediately stood up and left the room. Later that day, Mr. Perkins accused Mr. Abdul-Azim of assault. Both Mr. Abdul-Azim and Mr. Perkins were placed on administrative leave that day pending investigation of the alleged assault. HUH's corporate representative later testified that HUH believed Mr. Abdul-Azim was the aggressor in both of the incidents with Mr. Perkins.

         After this second incident, Mr. Abdul-Azim's supervisor Tawana Brooks recommended that Mr. Abdul-Azim be required to participate in HUH's Employee Assistance Program (EAP) before returning to work. This recommendation was accepted by HUH's senior employee and labor-relations specialist, Candace Dabney-Smith, who expressed concern about the "[p]ossibility of something else driving what appears to be manic behavior."

         HUH also referred Mr. Abdul-Azim to the Employee Health Department for a fitness-for-duty evaluation. The evaluation was conducted in May 2014 by Dr. Elizabeth Nolte. Dr. Nolte found that Mr. Abdul-Azim was "hyperactive" and "manic," that he had "poor concentration," and that his behavior during the evaluation was bizarre. Dr. Nolte concluded that Mr. Abdul-Azim was "[n]ot physically able to safely and efficiently perform the essential functions of the job." Subsequently, Dr. Nolte referred Mr. Abdul-Azim for an evaluation for organic disease or psychiatric disorder, noting that Mr. Abdul-Azim "would benefit from psychiatric evaluation" and that he would remain on leave until evaluated and treated. Dr. Nolte testified that she did not know whether or not Mr. Abdul-Azim was disabled and did not recall whether she had believed that Mr. Abdul-Azim had any particular disorder.

         In July 2014, the EAP administrator reported that Mr. Abdul-Azim had completed his EAP sessions and that no further services were recommended. One week later, Mr. Abdul-Azim underwent a psychological evaluation. Dr. Kelurah Comilang noted that Mr. Abdul-Azim was "considered to be fully competent to be released to his[] own custody and does not present active danger to self or others." Mr. Abdul-Azim was released without limitations.

         Mr. Abdul-Azim delivered a letter from Dr. Comilang to HUH, dated August 2014, stating that Mr. Abdul-Azim was "currently receiving individual therapy services" and that his treatment began in July. Mr. Abdul-Azim did not send the evaluation records to Dr. Nolte, but he testified that he believed this letter would suffice to demonstrate that he had undergone the required evaluation. In October 2014, Ms. Dabney-Smith sent Mr. Abdul-Azim a letter stating that HUH was "unaware" if the requested psychiatric evaluation had occurred, "and if so, the results." That letter directed Mr. Abdul-Azim to contact Dr. Nolte. Mr. Abdul-Azim and his attorneys repeatedly tried to contact Dr. Nolte and HUH, but they initially got no response.

         On November 17, 2014, HUH sent a letter to Mr. Abdul-Azim's attorney stating that Mr. Abdul-Azim could not return to work until he had provided "documentation that he was evaluated and treated by a Psychiatrist and has been cleared for duty by Dr. Nolte." After further correspondence back and forth, HUH sent a letter in December 2014 stating that HUH was considering terminating Mr. Abdul-Azim because he had not produced "documentation verifying completion of a psychiatric evaluation." Mr. Abdul-Azim responded with a letter insisting that he had complied with the conditions on his return to work. HUH terminated ...

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