Here’s the craziest Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) case we’ve come across recently. (Warning: The ruling is a little tough for employers to swallow.)
Meet John Assaturian, a location manager for Hertz Rent-A-Car’s Honolulu sales department. He was a long-time employee who’d been disciplined for multiple work incidents in which he lashed out at co-workers by yelling, using profanity and pounding his fist on the table.
Eventually, he was diagnosed with chronic ulcerative proctitis and ulcerative colitis, which according to Assaturian affected his bowel control, caused him to lose sleep and was the main culprit in his inability to handle stress. Basically, his medical conditions appear to have made him a very irritable co-worker.
His managers were off site in California, Arizona and New Jersey — as was the company’s HR department, which was located in California.
Dog in the office
This meant Assaturian operated under very little supervision.
As a result, it took nearly a year for Hertz to discover that Assaturian was bringing his dog, Sugar Bear, a Shih Tzu, into his office.
According to Assaturian’s co-workers, Sugar Bear was allowed to roam the office freely, frequently urinating on the floor.
Sugar Bear was eventually discovered when a Hertz manager paid a visit to the Honolulu office. Shortly after, HR phoned Assaturian to inform him that Hertz “had concerns with allowing employees to bring pets to work.”
The comments didn’t go over well with Assaturian, who responded profanely and hung up on HR multiple times. He was, however, able to squeak out the words “anger issues,” “emotions” and “medical condition” while trying to describe what Sugar Bear was doing in the office. He claimed the dog was a calming influence.
Fired for next outburst
A few months after the back-and-forth with HR about Sugar Bear, Assaturian had an altercation with a co-worker, which prompted Hertz to fire him.
Assaturian then sued, claiming his termination stemmed from his disability and Hertz should’ve provided him with some accommodations. He said his firing was a case of disability discrimination and violated a Hawaii law that is nearly identical to the ADA.
Hertz tried to get the case thrown out via summary judgment. It said his termination couldn’t have been discriminatory because it never even knew he was disabled, and he’d never requested an accommodation.
But the U.S. District Court for the District of Hawaii — which has a reputation for being very pro-employee — said the case should proceed.
The court’s reasoning? It said a reasonable jury could find that Hertz management knew Assaturian was disabled and his outburst was a symptom of his disability.
In a nutshell, the court ruled it couldn’t conclude that it was Assaturian’s fault the two parties failed to enter the interactive process — in which employers must interact with disabled workers to determine if reasonable accommodations exist that would allow the disabled individuals to perform the essential functions of their jobs. Therefore, the case will proceed.
Any employer that’s been following recent ADA law knows employees don’t have to say the words “disability” or “accommodation” to trigger the interactive process obligations under the ADA.
But this case is as close as we’ve seen a court get to telling employers they need to essentially read the minds of their workers.
Basically, what the U.S. District Court for the District of Hawaii is telling employers is this: Any mention of an “issue” or “condition” could be enough to trigger obligations under the ADA and similar state laws.
Oh, and remember, it’s not just HR that needs to be clairvoyant — your managers need to develop this skill as well.
Cite: Assaturian v. Hertz Corp.