About Us  |  About Cheetah®  |  Contact Us

Jury to decide if care provider of disabled violated ADA in firing injured employees

By Lorene D. Park, J.D.

In an ADA suit by the EEOC on behalf of four employees who were fired after they were injured and their FMLA leave was exhausted, a federal court in Arizona denied the agency’s motion for summary judgment because it failed to identify alternative positions, so it did not prove as a matter of law that each employee was a “qualified individual.” The employer’s motion was denied because there were triable questions on whether it failed to engage in the interactive process with each employee and whether it had an inflexible leave policy that weeded out disabled employees. There was also evidence that the employer failed to maintain medical records in separate files. Moreover, given evidence that the HR manager should have known better, the court refused to take punitive damages off the table (EEOC v. ValleyLife, January 19, 2017, Snow, G.).

EEOC’s suit. ValleyLife is a nonprofit that provides services to disabled individuals in the greater Phoenix area. Despite its mission, the EEOC filed suit claiming the employer violated the ADA by maintaining an inflexible leave policy that screened out disabled employees and failed to engage in the interactive process. It also allegedly violated the ADA’s requirement that employee medical records be maintained in “separate medical files.” Both parties moved for summary judgment. The employer argued that none of the employees were “qualified individuals” under the ADA and it had no duty to engage in the interactive process. The EEOC argued otherwise. Addressing each employee in turn, the court denied both motions.

Group home supervisor. One of the employees, a group home supervisor, was struck in the chest by a patient in May 2009. His doctor suggested surgery to repair his sternum and restricted him from heavy lifting, which was part of his job. The HR manager denied his request for leave because he had exhausted his FMLA allotment. He was also denied unpaid personal leave. On October 16, his supervisor sent a letter stating he could work on “light duty” until his surgery but would then have to resign. The employer admitted this was because of his pending surgery; it had determined that he would not be eligible for FMLA leave again until December 17.

Denying the employer’s motion for summary judgment, the court found that even though the employee could not perform the essential functions of a group home supervisor, the employer should have engaged in an interactive process to look for alternatives. The EEOC was also denied summary judgment because it did not show he would be “qualified” for another position.

Caregiver in private home. The second employee was a caregiver for a single client, and her duties included cooking, cleaning, and transportation. She broke her ankle on November 8, 2010, and went on FMLA leave. As her return date approached, her supervisor asked if she was coming back and the employee responded that her doctor recommended physical therapy and she didn’t think she could return to her same position without it. According to the employee, the supervisor said she would be terminated if she didn’t return the following week. She was fired on January 11, 2011. A few days later, her doctor approved her for light duty.

Once again the court found a triable question on whether the employer had a duty to engage in the interactive process, which it admittedly did not do. If the employee’s testimony was accurate, the employer knew she needed an accommodation. While she could not perform the essential functions of her prior role, the employer should have considered alternatives, particularly since she was cleared for light duty soon after her FMLA leave expired and she had a degree in “Office Automation Support Systems.” The EEOC’s motion was also denied because, once again, it didn’t propose an alternative position so failed to establish she was “qualified.”

Short-term employee. The third employee only worked for ValleyLife for one week, taking care of a single but very difficult client. She suffered from seizures and needed a full eight hours of sleep each night. Her requests to work days and to work with a different client were denied. On her third day of work, she had a seizure and was taken to the hospital. She again requested a different client or shift but was denied, and she stopped reporting to work though she continued checking in for alternate assignments. At some point the employer stopped returning her calls. The parties’ motions were again denied due to the employer’s failure to look for alternatives and the EEOC’s failure to show this employee was a “qualified individual” under the ADA.

Driver. The fourth employee was tasked with driving clients to day programs and assisting with basic needs like feeding them and helping them move around. On February 5, 2009, he injured his knee while lifting a client. He had surgery and, following another injury, required more surgery. He told the employer his recovery would be lengthy but he could return on light duty. On June 16, he received a letter stating his FMLA leave was exhausted on June 14 and the employer did not offer unpaid leave. His termination form stated he was terminated because he “did not return from FMLA.” As to this employee, the court again denied summary judgment because, under his version of events, the employer had a duty to explore reasonable accommodations but did not do so, and the EEOC failed to show he was qualified.

Inflexible leave policy screened out disabled employees? The employer’s motion was also denied on the question of whether it had an inflexible leave policy, violating the ADA’s prohibition against using “selection criteria that screen out . . . individuals with disabilities” unless the standard is job-related for the position. While the employer pointed to testimony from its HR manager and others indicating that after FMLA leave is exhausted, unpaid leave is provided, the EEOC offered evidence to the contrary. For one thing, there was evidence that it fired three employees upon the expiration of their FMLA leave. The agency also asserted that the inflexible policy appeared in the employee handbook. That was enough to preclude summary judgment.

Failure to separate medical records? Also headed to trial was the question of whether the employer violated the ADA’s requirement that medical information be maintained in separate files. While the HR manager testified that the employer does not commingle records, the EEOC pointed to admissions the employer made in discovery which suggested otherwise. For example, the employer stated that upon termination, “all files on a single employee are combined in a single file. If certain records, such as medical records, are not in the complete files disclosed, it is because there were no medical records . . .”