Human Resources News & Insights

If they can’t do the job, they can be let go — disabled or not

Here’s a nice change of pace from all those cases you’ve been reading where companies got in legal trouble for allegedly mishandling employee disability claims.

Despite the fact that the recent amendment to the Americans with Disabilities Act expanded the definition of disability to the point of near-absurdity, it appears that one bedrock rule still applies:

If there’s no accommodation that will allow a disabled employee to fulfill the essential duties of his/her job, an employer is within its rights to let that employee go.

That’s the clear message from a recent federal court case in California.

The case involved Cynthia Lawler, who worked as a manager for a boutique gift store located in Santa Clara, CA.

After she was diagnosed with a form of arthritis, her doctor recommended that she only work part-time.

The HR manager asked Lawler for certification from her doctor to pinpoint the severity of her condition and if there was any accommodation that might be made to mitigate the situation.

One month’s leave turns into four

But just a few days later — and, apparently, before she could get a letter from her doctor — Lawler’s arthritis caused her to fall in her bedroom, breaking two toes.

Initially, the podiatrist that treated Lawler for her broken toes recommended that she remain out of work for a month. When the month was up, her primary physician wrote a letter recommending she take three more months off “to avoid further flare-ups” of her arthritis.

Again, the HR manager wrote the doctor asking if there was any accommodation the employer could make in order for Lawler to come to work, because “it is essential for a boutique manager to be in regular attendance at the boutique.”

The doctor couldn’t suggest an accommodation. Lawler was fired.

She filed suit, alleging disability discrimination.

The court wasn’t buying it. It was clear Lawler couldn’t perform the essential duties of her job — first and foremost, showing up for work.

An expert’s view of the salient issues

This case sparks some good reminders of the kind of issues these cases raise for HR. Here’s a rundown from Christopher W. Olmsted, writing on the blog of law firm Barker Olmstead & Barnier:

Define Essential Functions. Disabled employees need to perform essential job functions with or without accommodation, so it’s important for an employer to define those functions for the medical provider.

Full Time May Be Essential. Certain jobs may require full time work, at least in the long run. Here the company contended that the store manager position required full time attendance.

Get the Note. In disability cases the employer should seek medical documentation defining the disability, limitations and duration of leave if applicable.

Interact. The ADA requires employers to discuss accommodations with the employee. Be sure to create a record of the interaction.

Accommodate. An employer should offer an employee reasonable accommodation, which may include a leave of absence.

Termination can be OK. As this court pointed out, it might be acceptable to terminate an employee with a disability who can’t work even with accommodation.

However, a leave of absence might serve as one form of accommodation. It’s a best practice to obtain legal advice before doing so, given the many nuances of state and federal disability law.

The case is Lawler v. Montblanc.

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