Employee’s Resignation During Accommodation Process Dooms Claims

By Jeffrey Rhodes February 17, 2021
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A manufacturing employee who sought a permanent exception from his company's shift rotation could not go to trial on his disability claims because he did not await the company's final decision before resigning, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama held.

Carpenter Technology Corporation, a manufacturer and distributor of stainless steel and specialty alloys, hired the employee to work at its Athens, Ala., plant as an ultrasonic technician in the non-destructive testing (NDT) unit. The employee's job was to certify that the product was not defective. The Athens plant operates round-the-clock, and NDT unit employees rotate between a day shift and night shift. To maintain morale, Carpenter requires that all employees in the NDT unit rotate shifts.

For two years, the employee did his job without incident and was by all accounts a good employee. In May 2017, however, the employee started having suicidal thoughts and starving himself. The employee reported these issues to his superiors, who encouraged him to seek psychiatric treatment through the employee assistance program. The employee did so and was diagnosed with depression, anxiety and anorexia.

Carpenter encouraged the employee to apply for Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave. The employee applied for FMLA leave, which was approved, and took 12 weeks of FMLA leave. After he applied for leave, the company removed him from the work schedule and advised him to also apply for short-term disability. The employee did so two weeks later, and he received disability benefits for approximately three months.

When short-term disability expired, the employee asked to return to work. Carpenter's HR department asked the employee to provide a doctor's letter authorizing his return, which took him a few weeks to obtain. The first letter stated that the employee would benefit from a straight shift schedule rather than a rotating shift during the transition period. A second letter recommended, but did not mandate, a straight shift.

HR recommended that the employee apply for long-term disability, which was denied for lack of medical documentation. HR asked the employee to update his medical records, which he did not do for over a month due to a change in medical providers. HR discussed the employee's limitations with his supervisor and the plant manager.

Other NDT unit employees had previously requested accommodations for non-medical reasons, which were denied. Nevertheless, the supervisor asked other NDT employees if they would be willing to swap shifts with the employee so that he could only work nights, and they agreed.

Despite the other employees' willingness to assist, Carpenter offered the employee only a temporary accommodation, proposing a straight shift for 30 days. Afterward, he would have to take leave again until his medical condition no longer precluded his working a rotating shift. Because the employee had already exhausted his FMLA leave, this meant that after 30 days he would either have to return to a rotating shift, resign or be terminated.

The employee's doctor refused to return the employee to work under Carpenter's proposal. Carpenter continued to discuss options with the employee. The plant manager had a call with the employee stating that it could not offer a permanent accommodation, but that it would be in touch soon with a final answer. HR also asked for more time to respond. The employee sought another update the next day and, receiving no response, e-mailed his resignation the following morning.

The employee filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination and retaliation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and interference and retaliation under the FMLA. Carpenter filed a motion for summary judgment on each claim.

In considering the summary judgment motion, the court determined that the employee's request for a straight shift might have been reasonable. While Carpenter preferred that employees work rotating shifts, the employee's co-workers wanted to help him by adjusting shifts. Under ADA case law, the employee could raise a genuine issue at trial as to whether working a rotating shift was an essential job function.

Yet Carpenter remained willing to accommodate the employee. The ADA does not impose a time limit on the reasonable accommodation process, and the employer's delay was reasonable—particularly given the employee's long delays in providing medical documentation. The court granted summary judgment to Carpenter on all of the employee's claims.

Cooke v. Carpenter Technology Corporation, N.D. Ala., Case No. 5:19-CV-00115 (Nov. 9, 2020).

Professional Pointer: While employers must avoid asserting artificial barriers to accommodation, they can seek complete medical documentation and take time to analyze it and determine the reasonableness of requested restrictions.

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

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