A practice pointer for accommodating disabilities: Make sure your decisions are based on supportable facts!
July 22, 2018
A recent case from the Sixth Circuit underscores the complexity associated with accommodating individuals with disabilities and the problems that arise when employers deny requests for accommodations. In Hostettler v. The College of Wooster, No. 5:15-cv-01601 (6th Cir. July 17, 2018), the Court reversed summary judgment for Wooster and revived plaintiff’s claim for disability discrimination under the ADA. Hostetler, employed by Wooster as a Human Resources Generalist, was hired when she was pregnant, a fact that she disclosed during the hiring process. She was hired to work full time and did so until she gave birth. Wooster provided Hostetler with more than 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave despite the fact that she was not eligible for FMLA leave. At the conclusion of her maternity leave, Hostettler was diagnosed with severe postpartum depression and separation anxiety. Her doctor recommended that she return to work on a part-time basis. The doctor also indicated that she could return to full-time status in a month or two.
Wooster initially accommodated Hostettler’s restriction when she returned to work. Wooster requested an updated certification from her provider after six weeks. Hostetler submitted an updated physician certification after eight weeks, which noted that Hostettler should continue working half-time. The updated certification did not have a firm date for her to return to work on a full-time basis. Hostetler’s employment was terminated the following day, without notice or any feedback regarding the continued work restriction.
Wooster claimed that working full-time was an essential function and that it was not required to continue accommodating Hostettler’s work restrictions. Based on the Court’s decision, it appears that Wooster had a hard time specifically identifying how the part-time accommodation adversely affected operations in its Human Resources department. In fact, Hostettler actually received a positive performance review shortly before her discharge, and evidence was produced indicating that most of her duties were being completed in a timely fashion. Moreover, after Hostettler was discharged, Wooster waited several months before filling her vacancy – a fact that may have undercut Wooster’s claim that the position required someone to work 40 hours a week. Based on these facts, the Court determined that summary judgment was inappropriate and the jury should have resolved Hostettler’s claim under the ADA.
Some takeaways for employers:
1. No good deed goes unpunished. Wooster is effectively getting punished because it tried to accommodate the employee. Hostettler received more than 12 weeks of leave, and then Wooster accommodated her part-time schedule. When the accommodation request was renewed with an indefinite release date, folks probably got frustrated. You wonder if Wooster would have been better off actually denying the part-time schedule altogether rather than trying to accommodate it.
2. Once you start an accommodation, you need to track performance to determine how the accommodation is working before you decide to discontinue or modify the accommodation. Provide written feedback to employees you are accommodating. Let them know if the accommodation is working or whether it is interfering with your operations before you choose to alter course.
3. Provide notice to the employee if you believe the accommodation is no longer workable. Give the employee an opportunity to address the situation with their physician.
4. The Court was hostile regarding Wooster’s contention that Hostettler’s full-time presence was an essential job function. This concept has become a moving target for many employers lately with different courts reaching different conclusions.
5. Be extra cautious when taking adverse employment action against a human resources professional!