Only three months into the new year and we have already witnessed a handful of cases where an employee has asserted discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Two of these cases focus heavily on an employee’s essential job functions and whether the requested accommodations were reasonable. The third focuses on overcoming the hurdle of establishing that an employee is, in fact, disabled under the ADA. All three cases resulted favorably for employers.
In Whitaker v. Wisconsin Dep’t of Health Servs., No. 16-1807, 2017 WL 745600 (7th Cir. Feb. 27, 2017), Whitaker worked as a corrections officer for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, eventually transitioning into other positions due to a back injury. Her most recent position relevant to her case was that of an economic support specialist in the Department’s Income Maintenance Program. In this role, Whitaker’s job duties included processing applications for benefits, answering phone calls, and general case management, all requiring regular attendance.
Whitaker exhausted her available FMLA leave for her medical condition as well as a 30-day unpaid leave to care for her father and due to her own personal illness. Whitaker was informed by the Department that if she failed to return to work upon the conclusion of the 30-day leave, the termination process would begin. Whitaker did not return to work on her expected date but did submit notes from her doctor requesting additional time off for a medical leave. The notes did not provide any detail on her condition, course of treatment, or estimated recovery. Whitaker continued to assert she was unable to return to work and the Department terminated her employment. Whitaker sued, claiming the Department should have considered her request for an accommodation of unpaid leave rather than terminate her.
The court found that Whitaker was unable to establish that she was an “otherwise qualified” employee as required by the ADA as she provided no proof that she could fulfill the requirement of regular attendance, even with an accommodation. Whitaker argued that if she had been given additional leave as an accommodation, she could return to work on a regular basis. Consistent with other cases we have seen, the Seventh Circuit did not find this argument persuasive. Rather, the court found this accommodation to amount to an open-ended leave request, which was not reasonable and would have imposed an undue burden on the department.
Like Whitaker, Bagwell v. Morgan Cty. Comm’n, No. 15-15274, 2017 WL 192694 (11th Cir. Jan. 18, 2017), analyzes an employee’s essential job functions and whether an employee’s request to accommodate those essential job functions is reasonable.
Bagwell was a County groundskeeper whose essential job functions included tasks necessary to maintain and upkeep city parks, such as traversing uneven and wet surfaces, standing, and walking. Due to stamina and endurance issues caused by a leg injury, she was unable to safely perform these functions consistently, even with the assistance of an accommodation. It was established that Bagwell could only tolerate walking and standing for one-third of her shift. Although some equipment accommodations would reduce related difficulties, Bagwell was unable to perform the essential job functions of the position, with or without accommodations; thus, the court found that Bagwell was not an “otherwise qualified” employee. Additionally, the court found that if the County were to consider an accommodation, it would be a significant one, requiring a co-groundskeeper or hiring a third-party service to complete the work. Finding in favor of the employer, the court held that this type of accommodation would be unreasonable as it was the duty of the groundskeeper to perform such work.
Two employer tips stand out in these cases:
- Be sure to keep your job descriptions up to date and accurate. Regular attendance is often an essential job function and the courts rely heavily on employers’ job descriptions to establish the essential functions of a job.
- The courts continue to side with employers when an employee is requesting indefinite leave under the ADA, which is considered unreasonable and burdensome to the employer.
The third notable ADA case of 2017 brings us to Alston v. Park Pleasant, Inc., No. 16-1464, 2017 WL 627381 (3d Cir. Feb. 15, 2017). In 2011, Park Pleasant hired Alston to be the Director of Nursing at an adult care facility; one year later, Alston was having significant performance issues. Shortly after meeting with her HR director to discuss these issues, Alston missed work to have a biopsy and was diagnosed with early-stage DCIS (a form of breast cancer). Alston’s performance continued to be in question and she was terminated in early August 2012. Upon termination, Alston sued, claiming employment discrimination under the ADA.
To establish a claim for discrimination under the ADA, Alston was required to demonstrate that she was a disabled person within the meaning of the ADA. The court relied on 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(j)(1)(iv) in concluding that the determination of whether an employee is disabled under the ADA requires an individualized assessment to analyze whether the employee’s impairment ‘substantially limits a major life activity.’ Throughout the case, Alston failed to provide enough evidence to prove she had a disability. The court did note that cancer generally would qualify as a disability; however, based on the individualized assessment for Alston, there was no argument or proof that this condition limited any of her major life activities. Therefore, the court found that Alston failed to establish she was disabled under the ADA and dismissed her discrimination claim.
This case goes back to the basics, but it reminds employers that an individualized assessment of each employee and his or her ailment(s) or condition(s) is required to establish whether the employee is considered disabled under the ADA and thus entitled to the protections afforded by the act.
It’s evident that ADA discrimination cases continue to be brought by disgruntled employees. To avoid potential risks in litigation:
- make sure your job descriptions are specific and in writing;
- follow the interactive process; and
- evaluate employees on an individual basis.