Disability Discrimination

Crosstown Traffic! Facts Surrounding Employee’s ADA/FMLA Request to Avoid Bad Traffic Not Enough Not all requests for accommodation or FMLA leave will fit into neat boxes like “pregnancy” or “knee surgery.” Because the ADA definition of a disability includes any impairment that affects a major life function, employers are starting to see some more creative requests around the margins. In Trautman v. Time Warner Cable Texas, LLC, the Fifth Circuit recently dealt with an employee’s requests under both the ADA and FMLA to address her “anxiety/panic attacks” related to driving in bad traffic. Buckle up, while we try to unpack this situation!

Road Anxiety—ADA Path

Heather Trautman worked at Time Warner from October 2012 until April 2015 in a position that required her to be in the office to interact with other members of her team at certain times. After she became pregnant in 2013, she suffered several panic attacks while driving to or from work. Her obstetrician suggested that she leave work earlier to avoid driving in heavy traffic. Although Ms. Trautman did not submit an ADA accommodation request for her driving issues, her supervisor agreed to let her temporarily modify her work schedule.

After Ms. Trautman gave birth, she took FMLA leave, returning to work in March 2014. She told her supervisor that she was struggling to transition her baby to bottle feeding and asked if she could temporarily work from home. Her supervisor requested a doctor’s note but agreed to the temporary change—and Ms. Trautman worked from home for the remainder of 2014.

In December 2014, Ms. Trautman’s new supervisor told her she needed to resume working from the office starting in mid-January. The new supervisor was concerned Ms. Trautman was not performing necessary job duties that required her presence in the office. Ms. Trautman asked that she be allowed to work from home, and her supervisor said not unless she had a doctor’s note and a formal accommodation request approved by HR.

At that point, Ms. Trautman submitted a formal ADA accommodation request asking to work from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the office and the remaining hours at home. The reason given was that her family physician said she had functional limitations of “anxiety/panic attacks related to traffic/driving.” The 2 p.m. departure was to allow her to avoid the heavy traffic. Time Warner denied the request because her job required her to work from the office during normal business hours. However, it did offer to adjust her schedule to 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. so she could leave the office earlier. Significantly, Ms. Trautman never tried the 4 p.m. departure time. Instead, she submitted another letter from her physician, and this time said she would be willing to leave the office at 11:00 a.m., so she could accommodate any busy afternoon work from her home. Time Warner again tried to get her to consider the 4 p.m. departure time, or even public transportation or ride sharing, to avoid her anxiety. Ms. Trautman again refused to try the 4 p.m. exit and also refused any other accommodations.

Trautman Takes Another Route—Intermittent FMLA Leave

With her ADA accommodation request at a standstill, Ms. Trautman began another plan—she started submitting intermittent FMLA leave requests that would let her depart the office early. She made those requests through Time Warner’s third-party administrator for leave requests—Sedgwick Claims Management Services. Ms. Trautman submitted paperwork from her physician saying that she needed to leave the office no later than 2 p.m. when her high-traffic anxiety flared up. Sedgwick approved her for one hour of FMLA leave per week for six months, but denied her request for any FMLA leave that would exceed that amount.

Ms. Trautman was missing work for numerous reasons at this time and received a written warning for her attendance. Her supervisor checked with Sedgwick to make sure that they were not counting FMLA leave against Ms. Trautman. Ms. Trautman continued to miss work. She was issued another warning pointing out that she had been absent for 22 days in the first three months of the year. She was warned that another write-up would result in termination. On the same day she received the write-up, she submitted a new doctor’s note to Sedgwick seeking an increase in her FMLA leave. Sedgwick agreed to increase the leave, but only as of the date they received the new paperwork — it did not retroactively approve any of her past absences as FMLA-covered. Ms. Trautman then began to take her increased leave. However, her unapproved absences continued, and Time Warner ultimately terminated her for excessive absenteeism.

Ms. Trautman filed suit claiming she was terminated in retaliation for her FMLA requests and that Time Warner failed to reasonably accommodate her ADA request relating to her anxiety about driving in heavy traffic. The lower court granted summary judgment on all of Ms. Trautman’s claims, and she appealed.

Fifth Circuit Drives it Home

The Fifth Circuit found that in examining whether Ms. Trautman’s absences were excessive, Time Warner had checked with Sedgwick to see if the time she missed was covered by the approved FMLA leave. It also noted that Time Warner’s reason for terminating her, excessive absenteeism, was not a pretext for FMLA retaliation. An employee’s failure to show up for work is a legitimate reason for firing her. The Fifth Circuit also stated that even if you subtracted the FMLA leave that eventually was approved, Ms. Trautman’s overall absences far exceeded the limits in Time Warner’s attendance policy. As such, there could be no claim for retaliation under the FMLA.

With regard to her ADA claim, the Fifth Circuit again found that there was no pretext in her termination. On the failure to accommodate claim, the Fifth Circuit noted Ms. Trautman did not engage in a flexible, interactive discussion about her accommodation request. She requested that she be allowed to leave at 2 p.m. When Time Warner denied that request, Ms. Trautman instead asked to leave at 11:00 a.m. The court stated “that’s not the stuff of flexible, interactive discussions.” It also bothered the court that Ms. Trautman never looked into other options, such as additional breaks or ride sharing. In the end, the court stated “neither the ADA nor the 2008 amendments to the ADA permits an employee to leave work early and then sue her employer for being unreasonable.”

How Does This Affect the Rules of the Road on FMLA and ADA?

This decision didn’t really alter the landscape, but it is a good example of an employer that did a decent job of trying to accommodate an employee who was asking for more than the company could grant. The Fifth Circuit noted several times in the opinion that Time Warner had allowed her to alter her work schedule, even though they weren’t absolutely required to do so. Time Warner apparently did a good job of communicating with Ms. Trautman, even if it was denying what she wanted. In addition, the court also found it significant that every time Ms. Trautman’s supervisor was looking to discipline her for being absent, she first looked to make sure those absences weren’t covered by the FMLA.

One of the lessons to be learned here is that when it comes to mental health, especially anxiety, employers need to be very careful to follow their usual procedures on ADA accommodation requests. In addition, even though Ms. Trautman had been working from home for the better part of a year, Time Warner had appropriate evidence to show that actual presence in the office was an essential function of the job. That evidence enabled the Fifth Circuit to state that failing to show up for work when required can be a basis for termination.

Moving Up the Naughty List: Level of Progressive Discipline Can Be Non-Discriminatory Reason, Says Eighth CircuitMany employers have progressive discipline policies. Are they always followed? Probably not. Should they be? Absolutely, and Lindeman v. St. Luke’s Hospital of Kansas City, a recent case in the Eighth Circuit, demonstrates that being able to point to the use of a progressive discipline policy can help dispose of an ADEA/ADA case.

The Facts

Todd Lindeman worked in St. Luke’s Hospital of Kansas City where the progressive discipline policy had varying penalties for each infraction: verbal warning for the first; written warning for the second; suspension or second written warning for the third; and termination for any subsequent infraction. After a change in his supervisors, Mr. Lindeman quickly moved through the discipline system, incurring three infractions in a four-month period. Finally, Mr. Lindeman violated the patient confidentiality policy and was terminated as a result of this fourth infraction.

Mr. Lindeman, who was over age 40 and suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder, attention deficit disorder, and bipolar disorder, filed suit under the ADA and the ADEA. St. Luke’s moved for summary judgment stating that the reason for his termination—disclosure of confidential information in violation of hospital policies—was a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason. The burden then shifted back to Mr. Lindeman to show that the reason was pretextual. Mr. Lindeman claimed that two other employees also revealed the confidential information but were not terminated. The district court granted summary judgment, noting that Mr. Lindeman had not shown that the other two employees were at the last stage of the progressive disciplinary policy, as he was. Mr. Lindeman appealed, and the Eighth Circuit affirmed.

Moral of the Story: Follow Your Policy

This may seem like a minor case on a minor issue, but it again points to the gospel that we preach over and over: If you have a policy—enforce it and enforce it consistently. You may find a disciplinary system beneficial, as the hospital did here, to show a non-discriminatory reason for treating employees differently. But it only works if you use it properly.

“Sooo… We Need to Talk” – The Consequences of Failing to Engage in the Interactive ProcessThe ADA requires employers to engage in an interactive process with disabled employees, and courts often set a high bar for what that looks like. Expensive litigation continues to be the consequence when employers terminate an employee during or at the end of the interactive process. The need for managers and supervisors to understand how to communicate and clearly document that communication with employees is never more critical than when they are facing an employee who needs an accommodation to perform his job. McClain v. Tenax Corporation is a sobering reminder of how much emphasis federal courts place on employers engaging in the interactive process and working with employees with disabilities.

Background

Terry McClain, who worked for Tenax Corporation, was born with hand and foot deformities—two fingers on each hand, half a foot on each side, and no toes. As a result, McClain had difficulty grasping with his hands, walking, and climbing up or down steps. Nevertheless, he worked 40 hours per week supervising temporary janitorial employees. After a year or so, Tenax cut McClain’s hours in half because of a production slowdown. To make up for his loss of hours, Tenax offered McClain additional work wrapping pallets and moving them to a warehouse. McClain accepted the work and began working part time in his janitorial position and part time in his pallet-wrapping position.

Unlike his janitorial position, the pallet-wrapping work required McClain to constantly climb in and out of a forklift. Within two days, McClain was experiencing pain and receiving complaints from Tenax managers about his inability to complete his work efficiently. Because of the issues that he was having, McClain told the plant manager that he could not perform the pallet-wrapping work and requested that Tenax accommodate his disability by allowing him to return to his original position on a full-time basis. According to McClain, Tenax managers gave McClain an ultimatum—do both jobs or quit. Ultimately, McClain quit and sued Tenax for violating the ADA by failing to accommodate him and retaliating against him for requesting accommodations.

District Court Denies Employer’s Summary Judgment Motion

Tenax moved for summary judgment, asserting that it could not have failed to reasonably accommodate McClain because his requested accommodation—a full-time janitorial position—did not exist. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama disagreed.

First, the court explained that an employer must make a reasonable accommodation for the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified employee unless the accommodation would impose undue hardship on the operation of the business. The court noted that McClain frequently informed his managers of his inability to perform the essential functions of his job because of his disability and requested a specific accommodation—a return to his previous full-time position. The court determined that Tenax had not proven that accommodation would have posed an undue hardship.

Returning to Tenax’s argument that it had no full-time janitorial positions, the court ruled that Tenax failed to present any evidence that this statement was true during the two-month period that McClain worked part time wrapping and moving pallets. However, the court’s most significant holding was that the facts presented by McClain gave rise to a reasonable inference that Tenax discriminated against McClain because of his disability and precluded summary judgment in Tenax’s favor on McClain’s failure-to-accommodate claim. The court stated that McClain presented sufficient evidence that Tenax had summarily rejected all of his requests by informing him that his only options were to keep doing both jobs or resign. If Tenax gave such an “all-or-nothing ultimatum,” it would have “slammed the door on any possibility of a reasonable accommodation, foreclosed the option of McClain working just as a part-time [janitor, and] obliterated any possibility that the ADA interactive process could ever take place.”

Have the Tough Conversation

So what should employers do to avoid (or be in the best position to defend) failure to accommodate claims?

  1. Have the tough conversations! It is true that these discussions may be awkward and seem personal and invasive, but they are necessary to protect your business. Engaging in an open dialogue with your employee about his disability and what he needs to successfully perform his job—even if you can’t provide the accommodation—places you in the best position to defeat potential claims of ADA discrimination in the future.
  2. Don’t look for magic words. Remember that while an employee must affirmatively request a reasonable accommodation, there is no specific language that must be used to prompt an employer to begin the interactive process. As soon as the employee expresses that he cannot perform the essential functions of his job because of a disability, whether formally or informally, it is time to begin asking questions. If you need information from his doctor, get it (keeping in mind that you are interested in his ability to do the job and not a lot more).
  3. Talk to your core decision makers. After you are fully aware of the employee’s limitations, communicate with HR and other necessary management personnel in the employee’s department to determine what options are available and how you will be impacted by implementing such options. Once you have decided on an accommodation—and especially if you have decided that you can’t provide an accommodation—talk with legal counsel to review what your obligations are under the ADA and ensure that you have considered all sides and have properly documented the interactive process.
  4. Accommodate if you can, and clearly document if you cannot. Make sure your employee fully understands that you want to work with him. If you cannot accommodate him in his job, look at vacancies and explain those options.

Employers can’t always reasonably accommodate an employee’s disability. Hopefully, by consistently using these strategies on a case-by-case basis, you can avoid this growing area of litigation.