Supervisors’ Comments Are Direct Evidence of Disability Discrimination

By Steven F. Ritardi July 17, 2019

A trial is warranted under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) when the employer's supervisors are alleged to have directly discriminated against and failed to accommodate an employee suffering from episodic panic attacks and depression, a federal district court ruled.

Less than six months after starting employment at Crain Automotive Holdings LLC, the claimant had chest pains at work. Believing it to be a heart attack, she left to go to the emergency department. Following a few days of treatment, she was diagnosed as having panic attacks. She returned to work, only to suffer another attack. Approximately one week after her first episode, Crain terminated her employment, with the claimant's supervisors telling her that things were not working out due to her health problems and that she needed to take care of herself.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued on behalf of the claimant for failure to provide a reasonable accommodation and disability discrimination. Denying summary judgment, the District Court found that a jury would decide whether the claimant's diagnosis of anxiety, depression and panic attacks substantially limited her ability to take care of herself, communicate with others or think coherently, which are major life activities under the ADA as amended. Citing Congress's intent to broaden the definition of a "disability," the district court disregarded Crain's arguments that the claimant could perform other major life activities and could work through her episodic panic attack.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Accommodating Employees' Disabilities]

Crain also maintained that it was unaware of her disability. However, the district court found that the timing of the termination in conjunction with the claimant's e-mails reporting her symptoms and treatment were sufficient to infer that Crain knew of her disability. Similarly, it was for a jury to decide whether Crain received her doctor's note, which stated that she needed three weeks off work. The district court explained that an employee with a disability need not use magic words like "reasonable accommodation" when requesting an accommodation but must provide sufficient information under the circumstances, such as a doctor's note, when the employer can be fairly said to know of both the disability and the need for an accommodation.

While stray remarks in the workplace by nondecisionmakers or statements made by decisionmakers unrelated to the decisional process do not constitute direct evidence of discrimination, the nature of the supervisors' statements was different. Here, the comments at the time of termination were tied directly to the claimant's disability, thus amounting to direct evidence of discrimination sufficient for a jury' consideration.

EEOC v. Crain Automotive Holdings LLC, No. 4:17-CV-00627 (April 11, 2019).

Professional Pointer: When medical conditions impede an employee's ability to perform the essential functions of his or her job, managers should be encouraged to consult with HR to consider whether there may exist a disability and the need for an accommodation and, if so, to ensure an appropriate and required interactive dialogue. Discharging an employee immediately following a medical emergency is likely more often than not a bad idea, and tying the decision to terminate to an alleged disability is the type of direct evidence that will guarantee a trial.

Steven F. Ritardi is a shareholder with Carmagnola & Ritardi, LLC, the Worklaw® Network member firm in Morristown, N.J.

[Visit SHRM's resource page on the Americans with Disabilities Act.]



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