Failure to Return to Work Halts Disability Bias Claim

By Candace D. Embry Dec 8, 2015
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An employee’s disability discrimination claim could not proceed to trial because he failed to prove that his disability was the cause of his termination and he could not demonstrate that his employer refused to provide him an accommodation, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.

Larry Hooper was a doctor at Proctor Health Care Inc.in Peoria, Ill., and had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Following a personal incident in which Hooper yelled at police, he requested a leave of absence from work. Hooper revealed his condition to Proctor, at which time he was immediately placed on a paid medical leave of absence. Approximately one month later, Hooper’s psychiatrist cleared him to return to work; however, Proctor determined that Hooper should remain on paid medical leave until an independent medical examination (IME) could be conducted to determine his fitness for work.

Approximately four months after his paid medical leave had begun, Hooper underwent an IME that determined he was fit to return to work with no restrictions. The examining doctor suggested that, although not required, Proctor could provide some accommodations to decrease Hooper’s stress level and to improve his workplace performance. Proctor left Hooper three voicemail messages on three separate days indicating that he should return to work. Hooper never returned the calls, although he was in the area at the time. Hooper then traveled to Marquette, Mich., following the death of his mother, still without contacting Proctor. While Hooper was away, Proctor sent him a letter indicating that he had been cleared to return to work, that he had been contacted several times and that his employment would be terminated if he failed to respond within four days of the letter. Hooper did not respond within that time frame, and his employment was terminated. In fact, Hooper did not even open the letter until eight days after it was sent, by which time his employment had been terminated and the time to appeal had elapsed.

In his lawsuit, Hooper alleged only a claim of disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, in arguing that his case should proceed to trial, Hooper said Proctor wrongfully failed to accommodate his bipolar disorder. The district court found that Hooper waived a failure to accommodate claim on the basis that it was not included in his original complaint filed against Proctor. Further, the district court found that even if the failure to accommodate claim had been included in Hooper’s complaint, it would have failed because: 1) the doctor’s suggested accommodations were not required and Hooper’s evaluation determined that he was able to return to work without limitations; and 2) Proctor could not have provided any accommodations because Hooper never returned to work.

The district court also found that Hooper’s claim of discrimination on the basis of his disability could not be substantiated. Hooper had no direct evidence to establish that his disability was the cause of his termination, nor did he present any evidence that he was treated less favorably than similarly situated employees. Proctor indicated that Hooper was terminated for his failure to return to work, and Hooper could not provide any evidence that this reason was actually a pretext for his termination. Further, the court found that a supervisor’s comment about her experience with a family member’s battle with bipolar disorder was merely a stray remark and was insufficient to support a discrimination claim.

On appeal, the 7th Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision dismissing both Hooper’s failure to accommodate and disability discrimination claims. The appellate court further noted that Hooper ignored his employer’s directions at his own peril.

Professional Pointer: Employers must make and document every effort to remain in contact with employees in regard to their taking and returning from leave. This employer’s successful defense hinged on its documented attempts to contact the employee and its clear explanation of the consequences for his failure to respond.

Hooper v. Proctor Health Care, 7th Cir., No. 14-2344 (Oct. 26, 2015).

Candace D. Embry is an attorney with Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin in Philadelphia.

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