HR’s E-Mail Bolstered ADA Claim

 

By Jeffrey Rhodes November 14, 2018
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​A fired worker pointed to an HR professional's e-mail raising concerns about his health as evidence of discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and a federal district court relied on the e-mail to let the claim advance.

Mid South Extrusion Inc. is a plastics manufacturer that specializes in custom process films for individual packaging. In September 2014, Mid South hired the plaintiff as a maintenance technician. After accepting the job offer, the plaintiff completed a post-offer medical history questionnaire, disclosing that he had a prior shoulder injury that limited his range of motion and overhead lifting ability. He did not share any other impairments or conditions.

The plaintiff completed his 90-day probationary period and received a pay increase. His supervisor soon began noticing performance issues and had concerns about his ability to safely work in the plant. The supervisor claimed that he received complaints that the plaintiff showed up for work smelling strongly of alcohol. The supervisor also claimed that the plaintiff tried to delegate work that required special training to an employee who did not have the training. These incidents allegedly resulted in verbal warnings.

In June 2015, the plaintiff began having breathing problems. A lung specialist diagnosed him as having reduced breathing capacity and an esophagus disease that developed due to breathing asbestos at a prior job. A lung X-ray revealed that the plaintiff had undiagnosed tuberculosis as a child or young man, which had become dormant. He was referred to a cardiologist, who decided that the plaintiff needed a heart catheter.

In mid-August 2015, the plaintiff met with a Mid South HR manager and told her about his conditions and that he was having a heart catheterization procedure done on Aug. 18, 2015. On Aug. 13, 2015, the HR manager e-mailed the plaintiff's supervisor with concerns about the plaintiff's health affecting his continued employment.

The HR manager wrote that the plaintiff "stated that his doctor says he doesn't need to be working in this environment with all the health problems he has" and he "should get out on disability." She explained that this "raised a red flag" for her and that the plaintiff's issues originated before he worked for Mid South. She wrote that this "really bothers" her.

The plaintiff had the heart catheterization procedure on Aug. 18, 2015, and was able to return to work on Aug. 21, 2015, without restrictions. In mid-September 2015, his lungs became irritated by plastics dust when the machine he was working on overheated, causing him to cough repeatedly and creating some breathing problems. The plaintiff claimed that he used his inhaler and after 10 minutes was fully recovered.

Shortly afterward, he was scheduled to receive his annual review, at which he would have received a raise, 10 more sick days per year and 40 hours of paid vacation per year. In an e-mail dated Sept. 21, 2015, the supervisor told the HR manager that he was firing the plaintiff because he was "not qualified to be a maintenance technician." The plaintiff claimed that the supervisor told him that upper management wanted him gone, and he accused the supervisor of making other disparaging comments that included "all of these sick people make our insurance liability and premiums higher."

The plaintiff filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging that he was fired in violation of the ADA. The EEOC agreed and issued a letter of determination in favor of the plaintiff and later brought a federal lawsuit. Mid South filed a motion for summary judgment.

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

The court determined that Mid South did not have enough uncontested evidence to win the motion. The plaintiff presented evidence that the supervisor and the HR manager had referred to his medical condition with respect to employment decisions, including his firing. Mid South did not conclusively prove that the plaintiff's medical problems prevented him from safely doing his job, which would require an independent assessment of his condition and the duties of the position.

EEOC v. Mid South Extrusion Inc., W.D. La., No. 3:17-cv-01229 (Oct. 18, 2018).

Professional Pointer: Employee medical issues can create thorny situations for HR professionals, who sometimes have to help employers make difficult business decisions in light of them. E-mails about whether employees pose direct threats to the health and safety of themselves or others should be worded carefully. 

Jeffrey Rhodes is an attorney with Doumar Martin in Arlington, Va.

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