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Can I Sue For Wrongful Termination If My Doctor Says I Can No Longer Work?

by | Feb 9, 2023 | Disability Discrimination, Employment Discrimination, Employment Law, Federal Law Update, Wrongful Termination |

Let’s look at the recent case Hightower v. Keystone Automotive Indus., No. 5:21-CV-1792, 2023 WL 1412917 (N.D. Ohio Jan. 31, 2023) out of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio. Although our employment law blogs typically focus on United States Court of Appeals decisions, this case addresses a key point that comes up in wrongful termination cases based on disability discrimination.

In the case, the employee, Ronnie J. Hightower worked as a Cut Pad Technician in defendants’ Akron, Ohio facility and did that job until he was promoted to the position of Engine Dismantler. In January 2019, Hightower slipped on a loose bolt that was lying on the floor, which resulted in him tearing the meniscus in his left knee. Subsequently, Hightower’s doctor put him on light duty, which the employer honored as a disability accommodation. As a result of the light duty accommodation, Hightower’s Engine Dismantler position remained vacant. In March 2020, Hightower’s doctor ordered Hightower be removed entirely from any work pending surgery on his knee. In response, the employer allowed Hightower to take an unpaid leave of absence as an accommodation.

Hightower underwent several unsuccessful surgeries on his knee, which left him completely unable to work up to present.

Under the ADA, can a leave of absence be a reasonable accommodation?

Yes, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), a leave of absence can be considered a reasonable accommodation for an employee with a disability, if it would enable the employee to perform the essential functions of the job or to receive treatment or therapy. However, whether a leave of absence is a reasonable accommodation depends on the specific circumstances of each case and whether providing a leave would cause an undue hardship for the employer.

Under the ADA, will indefinite leaves of absences usually be considered a reasonable accommodation?

Indefinite leaves of absence are generally not considered a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. The ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities, but an indefinite leave of absence would likely be an undue hardship for most employers. The determination of what constitutes a reasonable accommodation is highly fact-specific and depends on the individual circumstances, such as the size of the company and the nature of the employee’s job duties.

How do you prove a wrongful termination for disability discrimination claim under the ADA?

To prove a wrongful termination claim for disability discrimination under the ADA, an employee must present sufficient evidence of the following:

  1. The employee has a qualifying disability as defined by the ADA;
  2. The employee is qualified for the job, with or without reasonable accommodations;
  3. The employee suffered an adverse employment action, such as termination;
  4. The employer knew or had reason to know of the individual’s disability; and
  5. The termination was based in whole or in part on the employee’s disability

This evidence can be proven through direct or circumstantial evidence, such as statements made by the employer or decisions that appear to be discriminatory. An employee can also show that he/she/they were replaced by someone who is not disabled or that they were subjected to different treatment compared to similarly situated employees who were not disabled.

It is important to note that the burden of proof is on the individual to show that the termination was motivated by discrimination and not for a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason that is provided by the employer.

In cases like Hightower, employees who cannot medically return to work have a problem satisfying second prima facie element of the claim. Specifically, the United States District Court held in this case as follows:

An employee is qualified for [his] position if [he] can perform the essential functions of [his] job with or without a reasonable accommodation.” Thompson, 985 F.3d at 524 (citations omitted).

Here, Hightower acknowledged that beginning in approximately mid-March 2020 when he first took a leave of absence and continuing to the present, he has been completely unable to work in any capacity due to his disability. (Doc. No. 36-2, at 19–22.) He also testified that both of the positions he previously occupied—quality control and engine dismantling—required on-site attendance. (Id. at 40, 60.) Because Hightower admitted that he could not return to work in any capacity—notwithstanding multiple surgeries—and his positions both required on-site participation, he cannot establish that he is a qualified individual with a disability for purposes of the ADA or state law. See also E.E.O.C. v. Ford Motor Co., 782 F.3d 753, 761 (6th Cir. 2015) (acknowledging the general rule that “regularly attending work on-site is essential to most jobs, especially the interactive ones[,]” and that this rule “aligns with the text of the ADA”); see, e.g., Gamble v. JP Morgan Chase & Co., 689 F. App’x 397, 402 (6th Cir. 2017) (finding plaintiff was not a qualified individual with a disability where the record was “replete with evidence showing that Gamble was unable to return to work throughout his disability leave, at the time that he was terminated, or during the pendency of this litigation. He has further admitted to being completely disabled, unreleased to work by his doctor, and unable to regularly attend his job”). For this reason alone, Hightower cannot make out a prima facie case of case of disability discrimination, and his disability claims are subject to summary dismissal.

Id. at *8.

How does not being medically cleared to work impact damages in a wrongful termination case?

Another issue that typically arises in this situation for employees who are not medically cleared to return to work is the ability to prove damages. Lost wages in a wrongful termination case refer to the income that an employee would have earned if they had not been wrongfully terminated from their job. This can include salary, bonuses, commission, and other forms of compensation that the employee would have received if they had continued to work. In a wrongful termination case, the employee may seek to recover the lost wages they would have earned from the time of the termination to the present or until they find or should have found (as determined by a jury) new employment, whichever comes first. The purpose of lost wages is to compensate the employee for the financial harm they have suffered as a result of the wrongful termination. If the employee cannot work as a result of a disability or medical condition, there are no wages that could be lost by being fired.

How do I find the best ADA lawyer to sue my employer?

If you believe that you have been the victim of disability discrimination in the workplace and want to sue your employer, look for the most experienced and well respected employee’s rights law firm in your state. Because employment laws are complex, it is best to select a firm that focuses only on employee’s rights as opposed to small firm lawyers that simply dabble in wrongful termination or disability discrimination cases. Remember that the right lawyer for you will depend on your specific needs and circumstances, so be sure to carefully evaluate each potential candidate before making a decision.

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. (Read: What is the Spitz No Fee Guarantee?; Why Having Skilled Employment Attorneys Is Critical; Employment Law: Avoid Hiring The Wrong Attorney). The best option is not to wait. Call our lawyers in Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky and North Carolina.


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