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Is Firing Wrongful Based On Potential Symptoms Of Undiagnosed Condition?

by | Feb 16, 2023 | Disability Discrimination, Employment Discrimination, Employment Law, Family Medical Leave Claims, Federal Law Update, Wrongful Termination |

Haley Hrdlicka was employed by General Motors for over 30 years. For the vast majority of that time, she worked in GM’s Sculpting Department. In 1998, GM provided her an eight-month leave of absence after the birth of her first child; and then in 2001, Hrdlicka was allowed to take about a three-year extended leave of absence. Come 2017, GM transferred Hrdlicka from its Sculpting Department to its new Design Academy. Hrdlicka made very clear her disdain for this position, outright telling her new boss: “I do not trust [a coworker], and frankly, I do not trust you, and I do not enjoy my job anymore at all.” She made several other inflammatory statements about her new position and her new boss.

Then from May 7, 2019 to August 13, 2019, Hrdlicka missed at least 19 workdays, which comprises almost 30 percent of her set work days. Additionally, she was regularly late to work – some by as little as five to ten minutes, but other times by a matter of three to four hours. Some of the excuses included:

  • “Hello, A family situation has come up.”
  • “ I am just so tired.”
  • “One of [my daughter] Ashley’s friends stayed the night last night and long story short I need to stay here until her mom comes to get her. I’ll explain later.”

While Hrdlicka also reported being sick on some occasions, she admitted to never going to the doctor nor getting any treatment. During this time, the employer gave her an attendance letter warning her about the consequences of future attendance issue. The attendance letter also pointed Hrdlicka to GM’s variance employee assistance programs and identified where she could get information regarding leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”). She did not request FMLA nor any further extended time off under any other employer provided program.

She did, however, show up late the very next two days after receiving the attendance letter, continued missing work regularly in August, and then missed a critical week of work where important presentations were scheduled. As a result, GM fired her.

Several weeks later, Hrdlicka was diagnosed with a brain tumor and Persistent Depressive Disorder. Her doctor opined that the brain tumor caused the severe depression diagnosed that Hrdlicka had experienced during at least the last 18 months of her General Motors employment. Hrdlicka asserted that these symptoms affected her “ability to care for herself, perform manual tasks, eat, sleep, concentrate, think and make decisions, communicate, interact with others, and work.”

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

To prove a disability discrimination claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), an individual must demonstrate the following elements:

  1. The individual has a disability as defined by the ADA: This means that the individual has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, has a history of such an impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment.
  2. The individual is qualified for the job: This means that the individual can perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodations.
  3. The individual suffered an adverse employment action: This could be termination, demotion, failure to promote, or any other action that affects the terms and conditions of employment.
  4. The disability was a factor in the adverse employment action: The individual must show that their disability was a factor in the employer’s decision to take adverse employment action against them. This can be demonstrated through evidence such as statements by the employer, evidence of a pattern of discriminatory behavior, or that the position was filled by someone that was not disabled or remained open.
  5. The employer knew or had reason to know of the disability: This means that the employer had actual or constructive knowledge of the individual’s disability. Constructive knowledge can be established if the disability was obvious or if the individual informed the employer of their disability and requested reasonable accommodations.

Once the individual has established these elements, the burden of proof shifts to the employer to show that the adverse employment action was not motivated by the individual’s disability, but rather was based on legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons.

It’s important to note that these claims can be complex and difficult to prove. An individual who believes that they have been subjected to disability discrimination is encouraged to seek the advice of an experienced employment law attorney.

Best Lawyer Blogs On Point:

Can there be a claim for disability discrimination if the employer does not know that the employee is disabled?

Most likely, no. A key element of any disability discrimination claim under the ADA is that the employer have knowledge of the disability. The exception being that a non-disabled employee still may have a claim if the employer perceives the employee as being disabled. Under this circumstance, the employer would not “know” of an actual disability because there is no actual disability.

In Hrdlicka v. Gen. Motors, LLC, No. 22-1328, 2023 WL 1794255, at *7 (6th Cir. Feb. 7, 2023), the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that Hrdlicka because her employer did not know of her disability, she could not maintain her claim:

We agree with the district court’s conclusion that Hrdlicka failed to establish a prima facie case of disability discrimination under either the ADA or the PWDCRA because her purported disability was unknown to either herself or General Motors until well after her employment was terminated. The parties agree that Hrdlicka was never diagnosed with any medical condition until after her termination. In fact, she never even sought medical help for any symptoms or conditions from which she was suffering while employed.

Id. at *7.

Hrdlicka argued that the employer was put on notice because because she mentioned once that she was “depressed” on other occasions texted that “head … really hurting,” having a “fever and other symptoms,” or simply being “sick.” The Sixth Circuit disagreed:

Although these messages might have given Eko a general awareness of a health issue, that is not enough. See Messenheimer v. Coastal Pet Prods., Inc., 764 F. App’x 517, 519 (6th Cir. 2019) (“[A] general awareness of some symptoms is not enough to show that [the defendant] knew of [the plaintiff’s] disability.” (citation omitted)). At bottom, these text messages were not sufficient to apprise Eko of a disability, especially when Hrdlicka herself was unaware of any disability.

Id. at *8.

Best Lawyer Blogs On Point:

What should I do if I’ve been fired after requesting a disability accommodation?

Best Ohio Employment Lawyer Answer: The ADA has a ton of different facets that may make it difficult to understand your rights. That is why it is important for you to consult with a disability discrimination lawyer as soon as you perceive a problem, such as if you have been fired, wrongfully terminated, discriminated against, demoted, or wrongfully disciplined. If you are in that situation, Spitz, The Employee’s Law Firm will help you determine the best way to pursue your legal claims. (Read: What is the Spitz No Fee Guarantee?; Why Having Skilled Employment Attorneys Is Critical). Our Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, and North Carolina disability discrimination attorneys are here to fight for your rights.


This employment law website is an advertisement. The disability discrimination and accommodation materials available at the top of this page and on this employment law website are for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact an employee’s rights law firm to obtain advice with respect to disability discrimination questions or any particular employment law issue. Use and access to this employment law website or any of the links contained within the site do not create an attorney-client relationship. The legal opinions expressed at or through this site are the opinions of the individual lawyer and may not reflect the opinions of The Spitz Law Firm, attorney, Brian Spitz or any individual attorney.

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