Disability discrimination attorney answers: What accommodations does my employer have to make for my disability? Does my employer have to accommodate me even though it has suspended me? I’m on final warning – does my boss still have to accommodate my disability?
Under both the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and Ohio law, employers who are notified of an employee’s disability are required to make reasonable accommodations for that disabled employee upon their request. However, this does not mean that the disabled employee automatically obtains unlimited ability to dictate policy to their employer – not only does the request need to be reasonable, it must also not impose an undue hardship on the employer.
Because the employee’s initial request for an accommodation may not always work for the employer, the employer can offer an alternative accommodation instead. This is known as the interactive process. The employer must continue to exchange proposed accommodations with the disabled employee until a happy medium is reached or it becomes clear that any accommodation would pose an undue hardship on the employer. And, as a recent decision for the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals makes clear, employers are not excused from their responsibility to accommodate, or to at least engage in meaningful discussions with that employee about how to accommodate them just because the employee’s job is in danger. The ADA imposes a duty to accommodate regardless of the employee’s disciplinary status.
The case, Spurling v. C&M Fine Pack, Inc., is a good example of what can happen when an employer disregards a doctor’s recommendations and then terminates a disabled employee right after the employee has requested an accommodation.
Spurling had worked for C&M for about five years when she began to experience trouble staying awake. As a result, she began to get into trouble with C&M, who wrote her up several times for falling asleep until she was finally placed on a final warning and suspension on February 15, 2010. A few days later, Spurling met C&M’s plant manager to discuss her suspension, and she informed him that she was on medication that made her drowsy. Spurling also produced a doctor’s note, which collaborated her story.
Two months later, Spurling was placed on another final written warning and suspended after she continued to have trouble staying awake at work. The next day, while on suspension, Spurling told C&M that the reason she was having trouble staying awake was because of a medical condition. C&M then gave Spurling ADA paperwork, and asked her to have her doctor fill it out. Spurling proceeded to her doctor, who filled out C&M’s paperwork, and recommended that Spurling be provided with scheduled times to rest. Spurling returned the paperwork to C&M’s human resources manager, who advised Spurling that C&M would get back to her and sent Spurling back home on her suspension. However, C&M never bothered, and terminated Spurling’s employment only a few days later.
Spurling later sued, asserting that C&M had failed to accommodate her disability, and that it had fired her in violation of the ADA. The district court dismissed the cased in the summary judgment phase, reasoning that because the decision had already been made to terminate Spurling before she notified C&M of her disability, her termination could not be “because of” her disability.
Spurling appealed, and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court. First, the Appellate Court reasoned that the timing of Spurling’s termination was after, rather than before she notified C&M of her disability. Although Spurling was suspended (April 15) before she reported the disability to C&M (April 16), the Court reasoned that she was not terminated until she was given “unequivocal notice of termination.” In other words, because Spurling was suspended, rather than terminated when she reported her disability to her C&M, C&M had a duty either accommodate her as her doctor had suggested, or at least to engage in the interactive process:
C&M’s April 15 email may have begun the investigation into terminating Spurling, but it certainly did not manifest a clear intention to dispense with her services. Nor was the decision to terminate her ever communicated to her prior to April 28. Spurling was technically suspended pending a termination decision on April 15, not terminated outright. Indeed, [C&M] informed Spurling that she could present new information that may be ‘relevant to our deliberation,’ which she did. After Spurling informed C&M that she might have a medical condition affecting her work, [C&M] gave her ADA paperwork to be filled out by her doctor; it would seem as though C&M began to engage in the interactive process with Spurling. When C&M learned of her disability, however, it chose to take the “aggressive approach” and terminate her.
The Court then reasoned that C&M had failed to accommodate Spurling’s disability when it disregarded the ADA form her doctor had completed and fired her:
An employee begins the accommodation process by notifying her employer of her disability; “at that point, an employer’s liability is triggered for failure to provide accommodations.” Hendricks-Robinson v. Excel Corp., 154 F.3d 685, 693 (7th Cir. 1998)(internal quotation marks omitted). After an employee has disclosed that she has a disability, the ADA requires an employer to “engage with the employee in an `interactive process’ to determine the appropriate accommodation under the circumstances.” E.E.O.C. v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 417 F.3d 789, 805 (7th Cir.2005) (quoting Gile v. United Airlines, Inc., 213 F.3d 365, 373 (7th Cir. 2000)). … Rather than collaborate with Spurling or her doctor to find a reasonable accommodation, C&M chose to turn a blind eye and terminate her. It did not seek further clarification from either Spurling or her doctor and disregarded the medical evaluation altogether. This is hardly engaging with Spurling to determine if a reasonable accommodation could be made. See Bultemeyer v. Fort Wayne Comm. Sch., 100 F.3d 1281, 1286 (7th Cir. 1996) (employer should have sought an explanation from the doctor if it had concerns with the employee’s medical diagnosis). And while an employer’s failure to engage in the interactive process alone is not an independent basis for liability, it is actionable “if it prevents identification of an appropriate accommodation for a qualified individual.” Basden v. Prof’l Transp., Inc., 714 F.3d 1034, 1039 (7th Cir. 2013). Accordingly, Spurling must show that a reasonable accommodation could be made that would enable her to carry out the essential functions of her job. Id. The evidence suggests that a reasonable accommodation was readily available; Spurling simply needed further medical testing and a prescription to control her narcolepsy.
So what is the takeaway from this case? First, if you have a disability and it is affecting your ability to do your job, make your employer aware right away. In this case, even if C&M actually had planned to terminate Spurling on April 15, the fact that she had notified C&M of her disability and requested an accommodation before she was officially terminated on April 28 made C&M potentially liable for failing to offer an accommodation. Had she informed her employer of the disability earlier, Spurling may not have even been suspended. Second, if you are disabled or your employer perceives you as being disabled; and you have been fired, wrongfully terminated, discriminated against, demoted, wrongfully disciplined, denied wages, or even think that you might need a disability discrimination lawyer, then call the right attorney quickly to help you navigate any issues that might help you keep your job or set the stage for a claim under the ADA if your employer fires you anyways.
If you are disabled or your employer perceives you as being disabled; and you have been fired, wrongfully terminated, discriminated against, demoted, wrongfully disciplined, denied wages, or even think that you might need a disability discrimination lawyer, then call the right attorney to schedule a free and confidential consultation at 866-797-6040. The best option is not to wait. Spitz, The Employee’s Law Firm, and its attorneys are experienced and dedicated to protecting disables employees’ rights under ADA and Ohio law.
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