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Former Anesthesiologist Technician Kenya Harris is suing on the grounds that the Penn Health System and the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania discriminated against her on the basis of her cancer. (File Photo)

Former Penn employee Kenya Harris alleges she was unlawfully terminated from her job after requesting an extension of her leave which she was on for breast cancer treatment. The lawsuit, filed on Feb. 11 against the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, claims the defendants violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

After more than 13 years of working for HUP, Harris, 48, was allegedly terminated from her position as an anesthesiologist technician in April 2018 after requesting a 27-day extension of her leave from work at HUP. Kevin Fox, who was Harris' oncologist at HUP, wrote in a certification to support Harris' request for leave that Harris, diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017, was undergoing treatment that rendered her fully disabled because of her breast cancer treatment. She was subsequently terminated from her position, the lawsuit alleges. 

"We are unable to comment on pending litigation," Penn Medicine's Vice President for Public Affairs Patrick Norton wrote in a statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian. 

“Dr. Fox indicated that side effects of her cancer treatment may include ‘nausea, vomiting, fevers, low blood counts, risk of infection and severe fatigue’ and that Ms. Harris was fully disabled due to her breast cancer treatment,” the lawsuit read. Because of these continued symptoms, Fox provided support for Harris’ extension to return May 14, 2018.  

In the lawsuit, Harris claims that UPHS violated three separate policies: its own policy, the Americans with Disabilities Acts, and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.

"Kenya was treated very unfairly by UPHS," Harris' lawyer Jason Pearlman wrote in an emailed statement to the DP. "Although she is grateful for the care and support of her doctors and the medical staff, the Hospital did not follow the law or its own employment policies in handling Kenya's request for a modest accommodation for her cancer."  

Harris requested and was approved for a leave from Aug. 8, 2017 through April 15, 2018, under the Family and Medical Leave Act. After undergoing two mastectomies, six weeks of daily radiation, and chemotherapy once a week for 16 weeks, Harris, supported by Fox, requested an additional 27-day extension on April 9, 2018 to recover, according to the lawsuit.

A letter to Harris from the Health System confirming the receipt of the request on April 10, 2018 stated that if her condition qualified as a disability under its UPHS Employees with Disabilities Policy, the Health System would work with her to provide accommodation and determine if her absence would cause an “undue hardship on the department," the lawsuit read.  

Harris alleges in the lawsuit that the only communication afterwards consisted of two phone calls from Employee Relations and Retention Specialist Shannon Camps asking if she intended to resign from her position, which Harris said ended with Camps hanging up. 

During the conversation, Harris allegedly asked Camps, "Shannon, do you know the reason I've been absent from work all this time?"

Camps replied, "That's none of my concern or my business," according to the lawsuit. 

Credit: Gordon Ho

Harris called Jade Charokopos and Yomara Arroyo, who were both staffers in the HUP Department of Disability Management, several times and left voicemail messages, the lawsuit read. She then received a call from Camps in the presence of Harris' supervisor Braxton Bray. 

“You are completely terminated from Penn Medicine. Kenya, the decision is final,” Camps said to Harris, according to the complaint, and later hung up. 

Arroyo, Charokopos, Bray, and Camps did not respond to requests for comment. 

Shortly afterwards, she received a letter terminating her employment. “Due to operational needs, it would pose an undue hardship for the anesthesia department,” the letter read.

"Kenya is proud to be standing up for her rights and for others who find themselves in a similarly perilous situation," Pearlman added.