Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

On September 20, 2017, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision that a requested three month medical leave due to a disability was not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.  Although there is some discussion of the particular facts in the case, much to the delight of management-side attorneys like me, the case goes beyond saying that the leave was not reasonable in this particular circumstance.

Instead the Court noted that the ADA is not a medical leave statute.  The Court held that an accommodation need only be granted under the ADA if it will help the employee work.  Since an employee who needs leave cannot work, then they cannot be considered a qualified individual with a disability.

The Court does note that a brief leave of days or perhaps a few weeks, might, in some circumstances be a reasonable accommodation.  But, and here’s the good part, “a medical leave spanning multiple months does not permit the employee to perform the essential functions of his job. To the contrary, the “[i]nability to work for a multi-month period removes a person from the class protected by the ADA.”

The subject of how long must an employer grant leave to a disabled employee is a common one. Often, it is the source of great frustration for employers.  Although there is still no bright-line test as to just how much leave must be granted, this case certainly seems to limit that time to less than two months for employers within the Seventh Circuit.

Employers should still be cautious as many state and local laws that require reasonable accommodations for disabilities may not be interpreted in the same manner.

If you want to read more, the case is Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft Inc. 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 18197.

38608245 - therapy dog being comforted by a teddy bear on white background

A notable case caught our eye recently coming out of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). Namely, The EEOC sued CRST International, Inc. (“CRST”) claiming that it, among other things, violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) by failing to accommodate and retaliating against a prospective truck driver.

The new driver allegedly requested the use of a prescribed emotional support animal to mitigate post-traumatic stress and mood disorder. CRST purportedly told the new driver simply to leave his dog at home and refused to provide an accommodation, citing unbendable company policies, and effectively rescinded his employment offer. Unfortunately, usually these policies must bend, or at the very least the possibility explored.

While the CRST case is in its early stages, and no court decisions have yet been issued, this complaint serves as a great illustration of just how far reaching the disability discrimination laws are. Here many employers would scoff or summarily dismiss the seemingly unworkable request of having a service animal in a trucking business. However, the CRST complaint reminds us of the potential disability accommodations that employers must consider and make. Regardless of the nature of the requested accommodation, the employer is, at the very least, required to engage in the interactive process with the employee and determine what, if any, reasonable accommodations can be made. Otherwise, you may end up on the wrong side of an EEOC lawsuit alleging ADA retaliation and failure to accommodate.

Please remember that when an employee or prospective employee requests a workplace disability accommodation in order to perform his or her job, an employer generally must consider the accommodation and, if it can be implemented without undue hardship, it must be granted. Anytime an accommodation request is received, never dismiss the request out-of-hand. Make sure to talk to your in-house human resources department or legal department, or involve outside counsel if necessary, to determine your legal obligations. Also, note that your state or local laws may provide additional protections beyond the ADA.

Bill Egan writes:

Under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), a covered employer must provide reasonable accommodations to disabled employees, unless doing so would cause an undue hardship on the employer. Generally, an employer’s duty to reasonably accommodate is initiated by a request for an accommodation from a disabled employee or someone speaking on the employee’s behalf.

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Copyright: bbourdages / 123RF Stock Photo

Most courts have held that a request for accommodation from an employee is a “predicate requirement” to the interactive process for determining whether a reasonable accommodation can be made and what that accommodation will look like. The ADA does not require an employer to speculate about the accommodation needs of employees and applicants.

That has now changed, at least in the Eighth Circuit.  In Kowitz v.Trinity Health, a hospital respiratory therapist returned to work under a lifting restriction after undergoing spine surgery and exhausting her 12-week FMLA leave.  Although the hospital initially accommodated this restriction, it terminated the therapist’s employment after she advised that her doctor restricted her for four months from performing the physical demonstration portion of the “basic life support” recertification process, a departmental requirement.

The District Court granted summary judgment to the hospital concluding that Kowitz was not qualified to perform the essential functions of her job because she was not certified to provide basic life support.  The court further held that because Kowitz never requested a transfer to another position, the hospital was under no obligation to reassign her to a position that did not require the basic life support certification.

The Eighth Circuit reversed, over a strongly worded dissent, holding that an express request for assistance is not needed to trigger an employer’s duty to discuss the reasonable accommodation option with an employee.  The court held, “Though Kowitz did not ask for a reasonable accommodation of her condition in so many words, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Kowitz, her notification to her supervisor that she would not be able to obtain the required certification until she had completed physical therapy implied that an accommodation would be required until then.”

The lesson from Kowitz is if the facts known to the employer about an employee’s disability are sufficient to make the employer aware of the possible need for a reasonable accommodation, the employer is legally obligated to engage in the interactive process to determine if indeed the employee needs such an accommodation and whether an accommodation can be made without posing an undue hardship on the employer.


Bill Egan is a partner in the Labor & Employment Department, resident in Fox’s Minneapolis office.

A workplace of any significant size is bound to be full of individuals who are a little off the beaten path, so to speak.  While an employer will need to deal with the quirky dispositions of some workers, on occasion an employee’s behavior will cross over from merely quirky  to disturbing.

The first step towards addressing the issue is a fitness for duty exam.  These exams, which are typically conducted with licensed medical professionals, evaluate whether an employee is physically or emotionally appropriate for their position.  But this is complicated by the fact that disturbing behaviors often are due to psychiatric and emotional conditions, which are covered as disabilities under most state and federal discrimination laws.  If an employee has such a disability, an employer may require a fitness for duty exam only if the exam is job-related and part and parcel to a legitimate business necessity. This standard will generally be met if the employer has a reasonable belief that either a) the employee’s condition may prevent the employee from performing the job’s essential functions, or b) the employee poses a direct threat to his or her own safety or the safety of others.

This past week, an Illinois appellate court found for the employer in such a situation where an employee was observed in an office talking to herself and sending cryptic emails to coworkers.  The employee, who clearly suffered from an emotional infirmity that would be covered by the ADA, was sent for a fitness for duty examination with a mental health professional.  The employee then sued, arguing that the examination was a violation of the ADA.

If confronted with such a situation, employers should immediately engage with an employee for more reasons than just legal.  After assessing the situation, including gathering any pertinent documentary information, an employer should weigh the two questions above and err on the side of caution if an evaluation is necessary.

It should also be noted that this analysis is also applicable to physical challenges in positions that include manual labor.

Taking early intervention with respect to a possibly troubled employees can be a proactive step towards preventing workplace violence and improving efficiency.

Employee leave issues can be exceedingly complicated given the interplay between local, state and federal laws.  If you have questions, hopefully, I can help.  I will be giving a webinar through Lorman on June 23rd at 1 pm EST entitled “Legal and Practical Solutions for Accommodating Employees with Serious Illnesses.”

17568955_sI am pleased to be able to offer you a 50% discount off the normal prices.  To register, click the above link and put in the following discount codes.

Discount code: B5513783
Priority code: 15999

Hopefully, you can join me on Thursday.

 

Employee Handbook
Copyright: iqoncept / 123RF Stock Photo

In newly published guidance, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) discusses employer leave policies and the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). This guidance is significant for a number of reasons.  First, ADA-related developments feature prominently in the EEOC’s most recent enforcement plan. Second, alleged ADA violations continue to rank high on the list of grounds for which the EEOC both receives complaints and ultimately initiates lawsuits. Third, the interaction of ADA and employer leave policies adds another wrinkle to the complex interaction of laws at the federal, state, and local level that require paid or unpaid leave in some fashion.

The Relevant ADA Requirements

Before discussing the EEOC’s guidance, a brief refresher on the ADA “basics” may prove helpful. The ADA prohibits disability-based discrimination in employment and requires covered employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities. ADA regulations define “reasonable accommodation” as “any change in an employee’s work environment or in the way things are customarily done that enables an individual with a disability to enjoy equal employment accommodation.”

Under this definition, a broad variety of modifications to the work environment could potentially be reasonable accommodations, including leave. Potential accommodations, however, are not reasonable if: 1) they require eliminating an essential function of the job, or 2) they would cause undue hardship to the employer. A determination of undue hardship is a case-by-case analysis of the effect of the proposed accommodation on the employer’s operations or finances.

An employee who requests an accommodation triggers the “interactive process,” which, in broad terms, can be thought of as a dialogue between employer and employee seeking to identify the precise limitations of the disability and the potential reasonable accommodations that could overcome those limits. The employee does not need to use any specific phrasing to request an accommodation.

So how does the ADA affect employer leave policies?

Equal Access to Leave                                                                                            

Employers may not discriminate in employment on the basis of an individual’s disability. In the leave context, this means when an employee with a disability requests leave within the employer’s existing policies, the employer should treat that employee the same as employees without disabilities who request leave. The EEOC highlights this requirement with an example:

Example 2: An employer permits employees to use paid annual leave for any purpose and does not require that they explain how they intend to use it. An employee with a disability requests one day of annual leave and mentions to her supervisor that she is using it to have repairs made to her wheelchair. Even though he has never denied other employees annual leave based on their reason for using it, the supervisor responds, “That’s what sick leave is for,” and requires her to designate the time off as sick leave. This violates the ADA, since the employer has denied the employee’s use of annual leave due to her disability.

Leave as a Reasonable Accommodation

The EEOC’s guidance highlights the role leave can play as a reasonable accommodation. The EEOC’s guidance states that employers are required to consider unpaid leave as a reasonable accommodation to an employee who has a disability, even if:

the employer does not offer leave as an employee benefit;

the employee is not eligible for leave under the employer’s policy; or

the employee has exhausted the leave the employer provides as a benefit (including leave exhausted under a workers’ compensation program, or the FMLA or similar state or local laws).

Employers need not provide unpaid leave as a reasonable accommodation if doing so would create an undue hardship. Moreover, the EEOC cautions employers should not penalize employees who use leave as a reasonable accommodation, as doing so may be considered retaliation that violates the ADA.

Potential Red Flags

The EEOC guidance highlights leave-related policies where employers may run into ADA trouble.

Maximum Leave Policies are common to many employers in various forms. Sometimes these policies are referred to as “no fault” leave policies.  These policies often place caps on the amount of leave employees can use. Limits on Unplanned Absences are another policy tool some employers implement, and these policies typically spell out a set number of unplanned days off an employee is permitted to take before disciplinary action may occur. As the EEOC correctly notes, employees with disabilities aren’t categorically exempt from these policies. Nevertheless, employers may need to adjust these policies as a reasonable accommodation for an employee with a disability, unless the modification would constitute an undue hardship.

100% Healed Policies. Sometimes, employers may require an employee with a disability to be 100% healed (meaning, they have no medical restrictions) before returning to work, such as, for example, after a lengthy medical leave related to surgery. If such an employee is able to perform the essential functions of his or her job with our without reasonable accommodation, requiring that employee to be 100% healed before returning to work may violate the ADA. While there are exceptions – including undue hardship and the direct threat defense – employers maintaining 100% healed policies should tread carefully to ensure ADA compliance.

Bottom Line

In light of the EEOC’s new guidance on this topic, what should employers do?

  • Self-Audit. Review internal policies, procedures, and employee job descriptions for ADA compliance.
  • Train. Ensure that managers, supervisors, and HR professionals, as appropriate, are regularly trained on how to respond to accommodation requests, including leave as a possible accommodation.
  • Document, document, document.  Keep detailed records of discussions with employees that involve the interactive process and any decisions on requests for accommodation (and remember – there are no “magic words” an employee must use when requesting an acommodation).
  • Consult Counsel. Work with knowledgeable counsel early on to ensure ADA compliance and reduce legal exposure.

Today’s post comes to us courtesy of Brian McGinnis, an associate in our Labor and Employment Department in our Philadelphia office.

17755599_sThe Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that over 1.2 million Americans live with an HIV-positive health status.  Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), HIV-positive status qualifies as a disability, providing a variety of legal protections to HIV-positive employees who work for qualifying employers.  These provisions include protections against discrimination and harassment on the basis of an employee’s HIV-positive status.

The Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (“EEOC”) recently addressed this issue, publishing a fact sheet entitled, “Living with HIV Infection:  Your Rights in the Workplace under the ADA.”  This fact sheet provides guidance to HIV-positive employees on a variety of their rights under the ADA, particularly the process of seeking a reasonable accommodation from their employer.

During the process of seeking a reasonable accommodation, the EEOC notes that employees may not need to disclose their HIV-status;  rather, it may be sufficient for employees to state they have an immune disorder.  Whether an employee discloses his or her HIV-positive status or provides a more generalized description, it is critical that employers keep this information confidential.

The EEOC suggests a variety of proposals that could qualify as a reasonable accommodation, depending on the circumstances, including:  modified schedules (including frequent rest breaks, bathroom breaks, as well as flexible time to schedule doctors’ or other medical appointments), unpaid time off for required treatment or recuperation, ergonomic office furniture, and permission to work from home, among others.  This list, however, is non-exhaustive, and the EEOC encourages employees to request accommodations specific to their unique needs according to their condition.

It is also critical for employers to know they may face ADA liability if they take certain actions toward HIV-positive employees during this process on the basis of myths or stereotypes about HIV/AIDS.  This reality is particularly noteworthy, given the history of misinformation, stigma, and stereotyping that has surrounded HIV/AIDS since it first came into the public eye in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Because a broad range of reasonable accommodations may be sufficient for HIV-positive employees and because of the historic stigmatization of HIV-positive people, employers should consult knowledgeable counsel to ensure effective and appropriately sensitive management of the reasonable accommodations process.  Doing so will not only help employers meet their legal obligations under the ADA, but can also promote a beneficial resolution for both employer and employee.

Last week, the calendar officially turned to winter.  While the weather has been uncharacteristically balmy in the Northeast, soon temperatures will plunge and cold and flu season will arrive.  In New Jersey, two employees who were terminated from their jobs after declining work-issued immunizations have brought suit claiming that the termination was nothing more than discrimination on religious grounds.

The two plaintiffs were employees of a faith-based social services agency in South Jersey.  The agency, which provides nursing home service, mandated the immunizations in light of their dealings with elderly and infirmed clients.  In lieu of submitting to the shot, the employees, who did not directly interact with client, were offered the alternative arrangement of wearing a surgical mask at all times.  The suit argues that a mask requirement is unnecessarily punitive and is not a reasonable accommodation of the terminated employees’ religious beliefs.

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This is merely the latest salvo in an increasingly common struggle.  Vaccination rates in workplaces have risen as companies have realized that the cost of the vaccinations far outweighs lost production time from sick days.  In addition, a provision of the Affordable Care Act ties some Medicare reimbursements to employee vaccination rates.

So how should your company approach the issue?  First, review your handbook and if a written policy is not contained in it, make arrangements for an update.  In the policy, be sure to set forth a detailed procedure by which individuals can seek an exemption on protected grounds.  Finally, have a plan to have these requests reviewed by individuals familiar with the applicant’s job duties.

While inoculation policies have decided benefits for your company, a clear policy on exemptions can obviate the need for litigation later.

This week, the University of Southern California terminated Steve Sarkisian, their head football coach.  The firing came after a cavalcade of headlines that Sarkisian, essentially the CEO of a multi-million dollar enterprise, was increasingly showing up at practices, team functions, and even games allegedly under the influence of alcohol.  The move came one day after Sarkisian took an indefinite leave of absence to enter treatment for alcoholism.

Obviously, we here at the Employment Discrimination Report wish Coach Sarkisian nothing but the best in his attempts to embrace recovery and put his life back on track.  But the way USC handled the situation with a high-profile employee offers instruction on how to handle employees with substance abuse issues out of the public eye.

SteveSarkisian

Under the Americans with Disability Act and most state anti-discrimination statutes, alcoholism meets the definition of a disability.  But that should not be taken to mean an employer has to put up with an employee’s drinking on the job or showing up drunk simply because they are an alcoholic. The disease of alcoholism meets the definition of a disability, which means that an employer can’t take into account that an employee is an alcoholic when making employment decisions. However, an employer may maintain a blanket prohibition on drinking at work that applies to both alcoholics and non-alcoholics alike (If this is not in your handbook, it is well past time for an update).

An employee who can’’t meet those standards because of drinking may be disciplined, whether they are an alcoholic or not.  Taking Coach Sarkisian as an example, while he self-identifies as an alcoholic, USC can state that he was terminated for showing up intoxicated on the job, not because of his disease.  The moral of the story is that the employer must set policies that separate the disease from conduct.  This will allow employers to deal with employees caught drinking on the job yet still be in compliance with anti-discrimination statutes.

Feel free to contact our Labor and Employment Department with any further questions

28792171_sFirst, let us wish our fellow blogger, Tom Basta our hearty congratulations on the birth of his twins! They are adorable and likely to keep Tom very busy (and tired) these next few weeks.

Before the twins arrived, Tom and I had some discussions about how much time off he was going to take so that we could plan coverage for his absence.  These discussions and a recent webinar on pregnancy accommodation in which I was a co-presenter re-focused me on issues with paternity leave and maternity leave.

The fact is there are still some employers who think that maternity leave should be longer than paternity leave because, well, she was the one busy giving birth.  This may be true.  However, the fact is that employers need to be careful about such policies as they may be discriminatory against men.

If an employer’s policy is only to provide time for bonding with the baby after the birth, then maternity leave and paternity leave should be offered in equivalent amounts. In that case, there is no reason to distinguish between how much time a mother versus a father may spend bonding with the newborn.

For those employers who think that the mother deserves longer leave because she had to physically give birth and the father did not, such policies may be legal provided they are structured in the correct way.  Employers may lawfully give pregnant women longer leave amounts if a portion of the leave is considered disability leave related to actually giving birth and a portion is related to bonding with the newborn.  Again, in this case, employers should make sure that the bonding portion of the leave is the same as being offered to fathers.