“We tried to work with Diane in order to accommodate her alleged disability,” said Supervisor Nathan Hawkins, “but she dropped the ball, so we were forced to fire her.”
“Diane thinks we could’ve done more,” said HR Director Carolyn McGill. “In fact, she just sued us for disability discrimination.”
“That takes the cake,” said Nathan. “We were justified in terminating Diane.”
“When did Diane first request a disability accommodation?” asked Carolyn.
“Diane had a complicated pregnancy,” said Nathan, “and as a result, she had to undergo a C-section to deliver her baby. After the birth of the child, she needed several blood transfusions to speed her recovery. She wanted to be allowed to work from home for as long as needed so she could recover from the C-section and the blood transfusions.”
“And we allowed her to continue to work from home?” asked Carolyn.
“We did,” said Nathan. “However, we found that she wasn’t especially productive while teleworking, so we asked her to provide us with more medical information to explore other options for potential accommodations. And we asked her for a release so we could contact her doctor directly to get more information to guide our decisionmaking.”
“How did Diane respond to our request for additional medical documentation?” asked Carolyn.
“She claimed that she’d reached out to her doctor and was waiting for the paperwork to support her request to continue teleworking,” said Nathan. “However, she wasn’t able to produce the required paperwork within a reasonable time frame. Eventually, we gave her a firm deadline to provide the documents. When she missed that deadline, we fired her.”
“Diane alleges that our decision to let her go was motivated by her disability,” said Carolyn.
“That’s one thing I don’t understand about this lawsuit,” said Nathan. “How could Diane be considered disabled when she’d already given birth and had recovered from the blood transfusions?”
“Diane claims that her difficult pregnancy and post-birth complications amounted to a covered disability,” said Carolyn.
“I’m not buying that,” said Nathan. “Besides, our request for additional medical documentation was reasonable. We should challenge this lawsuit.”
Result: The company won. The court dismissed the case. The judge said the woman failed to prove she was terminated because of her disability.
First, noted the court, there was a legitimate question about whether the woman could actually be considered disabled under the law. The C-section and the blood transfusions were medical treatments, not disabilities.
Even if the woman would’ve been considered disabled, however, the employer still did what it was supposed to do. Once managers noticed a drop-off in the staffer’s productivity, they were justified in seeking additional medical documents to validate the woman’s claim that she needed to continue to work from home.
Under the law, said the judge, employers have the right to request medical documents to support a request for a disability accommodation, as long as the query is focused on how the disability could affect the job rather than on any potentially private medical information.
Cite: Owens v. State of Georgia, Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, U.S. Court of Appeals 11, No. 21-13200, 11/9/22.
(From the Dec. 16, 2022, issue of HR Managers Legal Alert for Supervisors. To start your no-obligation trial subscription to the publication right now, please click here.)