ADA Claims of Nurse with 12-Hour Work Restriction Go to Trial

 

By Jeffrey Rhodes March 3, 2020
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​A nurse at a skilled nursing and rehabilitation center may go to trial on her Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) claims based on her employer's alleged refusal to limit her shift to 12 hours in accordance with her doctor's note, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.

The plaintiff was a licensed practical nurse who worked for The Laurels of Coldwater from 2001 until she quit in 2016. In 2012, she informed Coldwater that, due to physically disabling issues with her back, she could not work more than 12 hours per shift. In support, she submitted a note from her primary-care physician. The plaintiff's file also contained two notes written by a nurse practitioner.

The plaintiff claimed that in a February 2012 meeting, Coldwater management told staff that it would not provide accommodations for any medical condition unless the condition stemmed from a work-related injury. Coldwater's regional director and administrator denied that any such policy was in place.

In July 2015, the plaintiff took leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act so that she could undergo carpal tunnel surgery. On Aug. 15, 2015, she submitted a note from her hand surgeon that stated she did not have any medical restrictions. She returned to work in late September.

In December 2015, Coldwater transitioned two of its three nursing units, including the plaintiff's, to 12-hour shifts. The plaintiff was concerned about this transition because Coldwater was mandating that the nurses work more than 12 hours when the next shift was not fully staffed. She allegedly asked to be moved to a unit that performed only eight-hour shifts, but she maintained that her request was denied.

Before a nurse was required to stay for more than 12 hours, Coldwater management would call around to see if it could get the shift covered voluntarily. If it could not, a nurse who was working the current shift had to stay. Nurses were required to stay on a rotating basis, as determined by a list kept by management. Whoever had been required to stay most recently was moved to the bottom of the list.

On Jan. 31, 2016, the plaintiff was required by Coldwater to stay and work a 13.5-hour shift. She told her manager that she had a 12-hour work restriction that had to be honored under the ADA. The manager responded that she was unaware of the plaintiff's restriction and claimed to have "no control" over the situation.

Five days later, Coldwater informed the plaintiff that she was going to be required to work 16 hours because a replacement nurse had called off from work. The plaintiff testified that it was not her turn to stay; in fact, it was another nurse's turn, which the other nurse corroborated.

In the middle of the shift, the plaintiff went to speak with the director of nursing about being required to stay, but the director purportedly told her that there was nothing she could do. The plaintiff left prior to the end of her shift and never returned to Coldwater.

The plaintiff sued Coldwater under the ADA for discrimination, failure to accommodate and retaliation, alleging constructive discharge—that is, being forced to resign. The district court granted summary judgment to Coldwater on all of the plaintiff's claims, finding insufficient evidence that she had a disability.

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

On appeal, the 6th Circuit recognized that the plaintiff alleged she was substantially limited in her ability to walk, stand, bend and lift repetitively due to scoliosis, bulging disc, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and Buschke-Ollendorff syndrome. It ruled that the plaintiff did not have to tell Coldwater about her specific diagnoses to qualify for an accommodation. She merely needed to notify the employer that she could not work more than 12 hours per shift because she had a disability as defined by the ADA.

The court found sufficient evidence to support her failure-to-accommodate and retaliation claims. The court also found that Coldwater's alleged refusal to accommodate could support the plaintiff's constructive discharge claim.

The appeals court reversed the district court and reinstated the plaintiff's claims for trial.

Morrissey v. Laurel Health Care Co., 6th Cir., No. 18-1704 (Dec. 23, 2019).

Professional Pointer: Employers should not shut down reasonable accommodation requests by quickly rejecting employees' claims of disability or placing arbitrary limits on accommodations. Employers should seriously consider an employee's request and discuss it with the worker to identify a reasonable accommodation.

Jeffrey Rhodes is an attorney with McInroy, Rigby & Rhodes LLP in Arlington, Va.

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

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