Stressed Out! Recent Court Decision Provides Clarification Concerning Employer Requirements for Accommodation of Disabled Employees Under the ADA

In the current age of global pandemics and unprecedented economic instability, many employers and employees find themselves stressed to the maximum. A recent decision by a Federal Appeals Court that an employer did not discriminate against an employee by firing her for misconduct she attributed to post-traumatic stress disorder has shed some new light on how courts are likely to decide certain future claims that employers have violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by failing to accommodate disabled employees and their conditions. The decision also provides some guidance as to how employers and employees can legally protect themselves in ever-changing legal workplace environments.

The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed by the United States Congress in 1990 and is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disabilities. The Act requires covered employers to provide “reasonable accommodations” to employees with disabilities. ADA disabilities include both mental and physical medical conditions.

The case at issue featured an employee who had been terminated from her position for allegedly using profanity to refer to certain coworkers (on more than one occasion), threw a headset, and engaged in other behavior that violated her employer’s rules of conduct. When the employee learned that her employer, a large, on-line home furniture manufacturer and distributor, planned to terminate her, she disclosed for the first time that she was a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder and that her co-workers provocative conduct had triggered her condition and resulted in her behavior.

The employee asked to be moved or to telecommute, but the employer denied her request and terminated her from her job the next day. The employee then filed a lawsuit against her former employer arguing it had violated the ADA by failing to accommodate her condition. The trial court disagreed with the employee and dismissed her case. A Federal Appeals Court agreed, upholding the lower court’s dismissal of the litigation reasoning that “Where, as here, an accommodation request follows fireable misconduct, it ordinarily should not be viewed as an accommodation proposal at all.”

In its decision the Appeals Court emphasized that the employee had disclosed her disability and made both proposals that she sought to classify as accommodation requests only after committing the misconduct that prompted her discharge. The Court concluded that the employer had not discriminated against the employee and stressed that the worker admitted engaging in behavior that was plainly unprofessional.

Many observers have opined that the decision reinforces that when bad behavior is a product of an employee’s disability, an employer may still require compliance with its professional conduct policies provided it does so neutrally and consistently.

The timing of the disclosure of the disability and request for accommodation as well as the consistent application of the employer’s rules of conduct were all key factors in the Court’s siding with the employer. It was uncontroverted that the employer had previously fired other employees when it learned they had indulged in emotional outbursts in the workplace in violation of company rules.

The Court further held that, under the circumstances of this case, the employer was not required to engage in an interactive process to accommodate the employee’s request to work from home, even if it had been made earlier in the chain of events, because this would have imposed an undue burden on this particular employer, who had no work-at- home policy and, at the time, purportedly lacked technical capacity to grant such an employee’s plea. However, this particular defense may not exist for many employers going forward now that many have implemented work-at-home policies to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

Sage and astute employers develop and implement comprehensive, clear and documented rules of conduct that they must provide to employees at the outset of, and throughout, the employment relationship. These policies and rules should be reviewed regularly and revised as circumstances necessitate, and the workforce kept educated and informed as to any such changes. Conversely, employees with disabilities would be wise to notify their employers of these conditions as early as possible in the employment process if the worker seeks any accommodation with respect to said disabilities. Such measures will help keep employer and employee alike from getting “stressed out,” particularly with respect to potential legal rights and claims.


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