When you decide to terminate an under-performing employee is an important moment, But equally important is exactly when you follow through with that termination decision. Forgetting that can be costly.
Case in point: On April 15, 2010, food packaging supplier C&M Fine Pack made the decision to terminate Kimberly Spurling, an inspector/packer, after catching her asleep at her production line post. She had received warnings in the past about her snoozing on the job.
C&M said it wasn’t just a production issue, but a safety issue.
Up to this point, Spurling had given no indication that her inability to stay attentive and awake on the job was related to a medical condition or disability.
So deciding to fire her sounds like an open-and-shut case.
Termination didn’t take effect immediately
It probably would’ve been — had C&M immediately ended Spurling’s employment. But it didn’t.
Spurling wasn’t notified of her termination until about two weeks after the decision was made. And in the meantime, she informed her supervisor her performance issues could’ve be related to a medical condition.
Her supervisor then provided her with ADA documentation and forms for her physician to complete. On April 21, 2010, Spurling’s physician examined her and marked “yes” by the box asking if she had a mental or physical disability covered under the ADA. Immediately following her examination, she submitted the paperwork to C&M.
But C&M went through with her firing.
Spurling then sued, claiming disability discrimination.
‘Disability had no bearing on decision’
C&M tried to get her lawsuit thrown out. It claimed that the decision to terminate Spurling had nothing to do with her disability, because at the time the decision was made, C&M had no indication she had a disability.
While the court didn’t disagree that the April 15 decision to terminate Spurling was in no way motivated by her disability, it did say a decision to terminate doesn’t count as a termination itself.
In its ruling, the court said it had adopted “an ‘unequivocal notice of termination’ test to determine the date that an employee has been terminated.”
The court said that according to the test “termination occurs when the employer shows, by acts or words, clear intention to dispense with the employee’s services.”
More specifically, the court said a termination doesn’t occur until:
- “there is a final, ultimate, non-tentative decision to terminate the employee,” and
- the employer gives the employee “‘unequivocal’ notice of its final termination decision.”
In a nutshell, because C&M had learned of Spurling’s disability before she was officially terminated, it was required to enter the ADA interactive process to determine if a reasonable accommodation could be granted that would allow her to perform the essential functions of her job.
Since C&M had not entered the interactive process, Spurling’s lawsuit was allowed to proceed.
Cite: Spurling v. C&M Fine Pack, Inc.