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Riggs v. Bennett County Hospital & Nursing Home

Supreme Court of South Dakota

June 27, 2018

JOYCE RIGGS, Appellant,
v.
BENNETT COUNTY HOSPITAL & NURSING HOME, Appellee.

          CONSIDERED ON BRIEFS ON AUGUST 28, 2017

          APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE SIXTH JUDICIAL CIRCUIT HUGHES COUNTY, SOUTH DAKOTA THE HONORABLE MARK BARNETT JUDGE

          DONALD P. KNUDSEN OF GUNDERSON, PALMER, NELSON & ASHMORE LLP RAPID CITY, SOUTH DAKOTA ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT.

          MICHAEL M. HICKEY KELSEY B. PARKER OF BANGS, MCCULLEN, BUTLER, FOYE & SIMMONS LLP RAPID CITY, SOUTH DAKOTA ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE.

          GILBERTSON, CHIEF JUSTICE

         [¶l.] Bennett County Hospital and Nursing Home (the Hospital) terminated the employment of Joyce Riggs and subsequently opposed her claim for unemployment benefits. Riggs filed a complaint alleging the Hospital's opposition to her unemployment claim was retaliation for her earlier request for permission to bring a companion dog to work. The South Dakota Department of Labor's Division of Human Rights (DHR) determined there was not probable cause to believe Riggs's allegations, and the circuit court affirmed. Riggs appeals. We reverse the circuit court's affirmance. We neither affirm nor reverse DHR's decision, but we remand back to DHR for further consideration.

         Facts and Procedural History

         [¶2.] Riggs worked for the Hospital from March 2006 until her termination in March 2015. At the time of her dismissal, Riggs was employed full time as a central-supply technician and part time as an emergency medical technician for the Hospital's ambulance service. Riggs's immediate supervisor in her role as a central-supply technician was Katie Dillon; in Riggs's role as an emergency medical technician, her supervisor was her husband, Alfred Riggs. Ethel Martin was the Hospital's chief executive officer at the time of Riggs's dismissal.

         [¶3.] Riggs suffers from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Previously, she has used a companion dog to help manage her symptoms. After Martin became CEO in 2012, however, the Hospital adopted a more restrictive policy regarding pets in the workplace. At the time, according to Riggs, she informally requested permission to continue bringing her pet to work, but the Hospital denied her request.

         [¶4.] On January 13, 2015, Riggs formally requested the Hospital permit her to bring her companion dog to work. To support her request, Riggs submitted a form completed by her psychiatrist, Dr. Lyle P. Christopher son. On the form, Dr. Christopherson indicated that Riggs suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder and that Riggs's depression had worsened since 2012. Dr. Christopherson recommended that the Hospital grant Riggs's request and permit her to bring her dog to work.

         [¶5.] On January 21, 2015, a committee consisting of Martin, Dillon, and Judy Soderlin (the Hospital's chief financial officer) met to consider Riggs's request. In a letter sent to Riggs and dated January 28, the committee indicated that in considering her request, it took into account the duties of Riggs's position, her current job performance, her two most recent performance evaluations, her attendance record over the past year, any previous complaints or concerns Riggs expressed to her supervisors describing her difficulties, and Riggs's medical documentation. In analyzing these factors, the letter stated:

The Committee found no change in employment duties, actual improvement in [Riggs's] two most recent job performance evaluations which were both at acceptable levels, excellent attendance, no complaints or concerns presented to [Riggs's] supervisor related to [her] ability to perform specific tasks, no decline in ability or extreme reactions when in stressful situations, good ability to multi-task, no verbal or written warnings of unsatisfactory job performance over the past year, and no substantial impairment of any major life activity or function.

         Based on these findings, the committee denied Riggs's request for accommodation. The letter advised Riggs of her right to appeal the committee's decision within 30 calendar days. Dillon delivered the letter and a copy of the Hospital's grievance policy to Riggs. According to Dillon, Riggs reacted by throwing the policy in a drawer, slamming the drawer, cursing, and then walking away.

         [¶6.] Following the committee's denial of Riggs's request, Riggs's relationship with the Hospital's management became increasingly strained. According to Martin, Riggs would not communicate with Martin or respond to Martin's directions. According to Dillon, Riggs came to Dillon's office on February 4, 2015, upset that Martin had terminated another employee. Riggs referred to Martin as a "bitch" and said she hoped a family ...


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