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Court Rules “Totally Disabled” Employee Still Can Be “Qualified” Under the ADA

By:  R. Eddie Wayland, TCA Legal Counsel

This past month, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued a press release on its website regarding a recently-attained settlement in a disability discrimination suit. Under the terms of the settlement, the employer accused of the discrimination agreed to pay $100,000.00 to settle the lawsuit. The settlement comes on the heels of an appeals court decision in the employee’s favor.

Background

The employee, a nurse, worked for the employer, an inpatient/outpatient medical and surgical care provider. In 2011, the employee tore her rotator cuff. The employee’s injury required surgery. The employee underwent the necessary surgery and then exhausted twelve weeks of Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave while in recovery.

At the conclusion of the employee’s twelve weeks of FMLA leave, the employee requested an additional two weeks of leave. This request was rejected by the employee’s supervisor. The employee’s physician provided the necessary release thereafter and indicated in it that the employee could only perform “light duty” work, which was later clarified to restrict the employee from lifting, pulling, or pushing, anything weighing more than ten pounds.

After reviewing the physician’s release, the employee was terminated because of her injury and inability to perform at work. Following her termination, the employee applied for temporary disability benefits. In her application, which was reviewed by and completed with the assistance of her physician, the employee represented that she was temporarily totally disabled.

The EEOC filed the lawsuit in 2012. In the lawsuit, the EEOC claimed the employer violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by failing to provide the employee with a reasonable accommodation and by terminating her employment. The district court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment on the ground that the EEOC failed to provide a sufficient explanation for the contradicting statements between the employee’s claim of temporary total disability and the EEOC’s contention she was “qualified” for her position under the ADA. The EEOC appealed the trial court’s decision.

Decision of the Appeals Court

In order to be “qualified” pursuant to the ADA, the employee must be able to perform the essential functions of his or her job with or without reasonable accommodation. Here the Court found that the employee’s “claim that she was temporarily totally disabled for the purposes of private disability benefits is not inconsistent with the claim she could work if provided an accommodation.” The Court cited a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court for the proposition that “an ADA suit claiming that the plaintiff can perform her job with reasonable accommodation may well prove consistent with [a disability benefits] claim that the plaintiff could not perform her own job (or other jobs) without it.” The appeals court thus found the district court was incorrect in its ruling, and the case was set to proceed to trial until the parties reached the aforementioned $100,000.00 settlement.

This decision contained two other noteworthy aspects. First, the employer argued that it had offered the employee reasonable accommodation and that she had simply refused it. It was undisputed that the employee was offered a clerical position while she was out on FMLA leave and that the employee had declined the offer on the advice of her physician. The court found that the employer failed to put forward evidence that the offer remained open at the time the employee was terminated. Second, the employer made an argument that the employee never actually requested a reasonable accommodation. The court rejected this argument pointing to the release form from the employee’s physician that was submitted to the employer. The court found that a reasonable jury could view the release containing the restriction of “No lifting, no pulling, no pushing anything greater than 10 pounds” as a request for a light-duty accommodation.

Takeaway

This decision provides some helpful insights to employers. First and foremost, it is critical to remember that the terms used in the ADA such as “disability,” “qualified,” “reasonable accommodation,” and “essential functions” have very specific meanings within the context of the ADA. Just because an employee claims a “total disability” outside the context of the ADA (here in an application for short-term disability benefits), this does not necessarily mean the employee cannot be “qualified” under the ADA. Second, the decision highlights that offers of reasonable accommodation should be clearly stated, and if there are deadlines associated with these offers, they, too, should be clearly communicated. Finally, the case makes clear that employers may be required to “read between the lines” when construing communications with employees as requests for reasonable accommodations. Here, the court found that the physician’s release itself could be found sufficient to be a request for reasonable accommodation.

R. Eddie Wayland is a partner with the law firm of King & Ballow. You may reach Mr. Wayland at (615) 726-5430 or at rew@kingballow.com. The foregoing materials, discussion and comments have been abridged from laws, court decisions, and administrative rulings and should not be construed as legal advice on specific situations or subjects.

October 31, 2017

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