For those of you who think the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) means you have to do whatever a disabled employee wants, I bring good news from of all sources, a jury in California. This case had it all—an employee injured on the job, extended leave and, finally, the company’s decision to go ahead and fill the job and terminate the employee. Pretty scary facts in any jurisdiction, let alone California.
In January 2013, Robert Gardner injured his neck and shoulder while performing his job as a Ramp Transport Driver for FedEx. Company policy provides for 90 days of job protected leave, which expired on May 7, 2013. Gardner told FedEx he had a doctor’s appointment on May 21 and the company granted a two-week extension of his leave to cover the appointment. The doctor released him to return to work with restrictions on lifting and commercial driving and he did not return to work and the doctor did not offer a date on which Gardner would likely be able to return to fully duty. FedEx changed his work status to “displaced”—allowing the Company to replace him or leave the position unfilled. As a displaced employee, Gardner continued on paid medical leave but no longer was guaranteed a return to his job.
Unfortunately for Gardner, as the result of a downturn in business, FedEx reorganized and consolidated its operations in May 2013, and decided not to fill Gardner’s job, as well as jobs of other employees who had been on medical leave more than 90 days. When Gardner was released to return to work on August 30, 2013, FedEx told him his job was not available and put him on unpaid leave for 90 days, during which he would apply for vacant positions. FedEx sent him weekly job postings during the 90 days but he did not obtain a full-time job and rejected some part-time jobs, so FedEx terminated his employment.
Gardner sued, claiming that FedEx should have granted him job-protected leave as a reasonable accommodation and that it ultimately terminated him because of his disability. The jury found Gardner was disabled and could perform his duties with or without a reasonable accommodation but that he did not suffer an adverse employment action. This is a curious finding because Gardner unquestionably lost his job, which, on its face, appears pretty adverse.
This verdict goes to show that if a company patiently follows its policies, keeps good records of its decisions (both about Gardner and about the reorganization) a jury may say you did the right thing—even when you fired the injured employee.