3 Lessons From the Courts in ADA and FMLA

3 Lessons From the Courts in ADA and FMLA

ADA and FMLA can be some of the peskier acronyms for employers trying to avoid litigation exposure. The case law on the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was updated by the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA), and the Family and Medical Leave Act keeps evolving, and employers that want to stay out of court should take note.

In a webinar, “Navigating the FMLA & ADA: What Every Employer Needs To Know,” D. Lewis Clark Jr. and Tara Aschenbrand of Squire Sanders identified some key recent cases:

1. Worrying About Losing Your Job May Constitute a Disability

One teachable moment in ADA case law came from a plaintiff who is—or rather was—a schoolteacher. In Huiner v. Arlington School District, South Dakota art teacher Jackie Huiner was asked to teach courses she did not feel qualified to teach and developed anxiety and depression because of performance evaluations and fear she would be fired. After asking Arlington for accommodations, the district failed to renew her contract, and she brought it to court.

“The issue in the case really came down to whether or not her anxiety from the fear of losing her job constituted a disability under the ADA,” said Clark. The answer, as it turns out, was yes. The U.S. District Court for the District of South Dakota refused a request by the defendants for summary judgment.

“Based on the evidence that was submitted by the school teacher and the medical records, the court determined that the plaintiff met the requirements for showing that her anxiety did constitute a disability under the ADA,” said Clark. “And it was partially based on the relaxed standards for determining what constitutes a disability under the ADAAA.”

The lesson here, explained Clark, is that when employees are put under extra scrutiny or issued performance plans, they may experience stress. Although employers shouldn’t have to excuse these employees from their duties, they should be aware that stress may trigger forms of disability that are covered under the ADA.

2. If It Doesn’t Ail You, It’s Probably Not a Disability

Being overweight can lead to valid disability claims. But not so in the case of hospice care salesperson Gina Powell. In Powell v. Gentiva Health Services, Powell was let go after receiving poor performance reviews that cited her flagging sales numbers and alluded to the fact that she was obese. She claimed her obesity was covered under the ADA, but gave no indication her weight had led to any health problems.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama granted summary judgment on behalf of the employer. “The court … found that the employee improperly equated a physical characteristic with an impairment,” Clark said.

The court explained that although being obese could make an employee look less professional and be might considered “undesirable” for a salesperson, it can’t reasonably be viewed as a physical impairment. For example, noted the ruling, Powell could have worn her hair in a neon-green Mohawk, which, like her weight, might have been viewed negatively by potential sales targets, but is nonetheless certainly not covered by the ADA.

Clark said that employers should remember that although obesity isn’t protected by the ADA “in and of itself,” there are employees who are obese “who do have ancillary or related physical impairments, which can rise to the level of being a disability and that can require an employer to accommodate those disabilities.”

3. Just Because It’s “Beneficial” Doesn’t Mean It’s OK

In Hurley v. Kent of Naples, Patrick Hurley, president of security company Kent of Naples, emailed his boss an ambitious vacation schedule: 11 weeks off over the course of two years. His supervisor, the CEO of Kent of Naples’ parent company, immediately denied the request. Hurley brought charges under the FMLA, contending his depression, anxiety and panic attacks led his doctor to advise him to take periodic medical leaves. Hurley was fired and brought a claim against his employer for FMLA interference and discrimination.

In March, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled in favor of Kent of Naples. “The court noted that the FMLA doesn’t extend its potent protection to any leave that is medically beneficial leave simply because the employee has a chronic health condition,” said Aschenbrand. “Rather, the FMLA protects leave for periods of incapacity or treatment for such incapacity.”

Although Hurley was right to ask for his leave well in advance—advance notice is a requirement under the FMLA—in the end, it didn’t matter to the court. “The lesson here is that the employee is not entitled or protected just because something may be beneficial,” Aschenbrand said.

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