Apr 02, 2014

Employers must know when their obligations are triggered by the ADA

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) not only prohibits employers from making adverse employment decisions against an employee based on a qualifying disability; it also requires employers to engage in an interactive process with a qualifying employee to reasonably accommodate a disability. However, it can be difficult for employers to determine just when the interactive process obligation is triggered.

A recent decision by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Spurling v. C&M Fine Pack, Inc., 739 F.3d 1055 (7th Cir. 2014) illustrates this difficulty. In that case, the employer held a disciplinary meeting after an employee fell asleep on the job. The employee reported that her sleepiness was the result of medication. Another incident occurred with the employee sleeping on the job and the employer placed her on suspension. The employee then advised her supervisor that her conduct couldbe related to a medical condition. The manager provided paperwork to the employee for her physician, but also recommended that her employment be terminated. The employee submitted physician paperwork identifying her excessive drowsiness as a potentially qualifying disability under the ADA. The employer, however, found that the paperwork was not sufficient and terminated the employee.

One month after her termination, the employee was diagnosed with narcolepsy. She then filed suit against the former employer for violating the ADA. Holding that the employee was not diagnosed with narcolepsy until after she was terminated, the district court granted summary judgment for the employer. However, the Seventh Circuit reversed the district court, holding that the employer had notice of a qualifying ADA condition before it terminated the employee and failed to engage in the interactive process by ignoring the employee’s condition when it terminated her.

Even though the employee in Spurling was not diagnosed with a qualifying condition until after she was terminated, the employer had enough notice to trigger its obligation to engage in an interactive process to find a reasonable accommodation. Employers should be mindful of the ADA’s requirements and know when their obligations are triggered under the Act. Please contact Ryan Haas if you have questions about such possible triggers.

This Chuhak & Tecson, P.C. communication is intended only to provide information regarding developments in the law and information of general interest. It is not intended to constitute advice regarding legal problems and should not be relied upon as such.

Client Alert authored by: Ryan A. Haas