A jury sided with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Oct. 26, finding that a Nashville-based rehabilitation and healthcare facility fired a worker because it regarded her as having a physical or mental disability — a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The jury awarded the worker $6,000 in compensatory damages.
According to EEOC’s complaint, filed in January 2018, the facility discriminated against the worker by refusing to allow her intermittent leave to manage her anxiety. She had requested one to three days off per month to deal with flare-ups, plus three to four days off per year to seek treatment.
The nursing director met with the worker shortly thereafter and informed her she was ineligible for Family and Medical Leave Act leave because she had not worked a full year at the location, the lawsuit alleged. She was allegedly told to produce a second note from her treating physician clearing her to work without restrictions.
Shortly thereafter, the nursing director allegedly spoke with the treating physician directly and said the worker needed to be reevaluated and cleared to work. The plaintiff was fired soon after the call. “Defendant Employer discharged [the plaintiff] because of her anxiety disorder,” EEOC alleged in its complaint.
The ADA stipulates that employers may not discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability.
In addition, while employers are required to provide up to twelve workweeks of leave each year for familial and medical reasons under the Family and Medical Leave Act, they may not necessarily deny unpaid leave in situations when an employee is FMLA-ineligible.
“The purpose of the ADA's reasonable accommodation obligation is to require employers to change the way things are customarily done to enable employees with disabilities to work,” EEOC noted in ADA guidance. “Leave as a reasonable accommodation is consistent with this purpose when it enables an employee to return to work following the period of leave.”
An employer may be required to provide unpaid leave as a reasonable accommodation for an employee’s disability unless it can show that doing so would cause the employer undue hardship, EEOC explained. In assessing undue hardship, employers should consider the amount, length, frequency and predictability of leave; the impact of the leave on the employee’s co-workers; and the impact on the employer’s operations.
Even if the nature of the requested leave is determined to cause undue hardship, employers are responsible for returning to the interactive process to continue to try to find a reasonable accommodation, EEOC noted.