Employment Law Daily Employee not 'qualified' after extended absence, certification of total disability
Monday, January 4, 2016

Employee not 'qualified' after extended absence, certification of total disability

By Brandi O. Brown, J.D. Finding it indisputable that a medical examiner was not a "qualified individual" after an absence of over three months and a doctor's certification that she was totally disabled, the D.C. Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of her employer in a lawsuit under the ADA and the D.C. Human Rights Act alleging failure to accommodate. The court also affirmed judgment for the employer on her retaliation claim, finding it provided a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for terminating her employment and that she would be unable to prove the "actual reason" was retaliation (Minter v. District of Columbia, December 29, 2015, Garland, M.). Request for reduced schedule. The District of Columbia Office of the Chief Medical Examiner employee suffered from sarcoidosis and related arthritis. In September 2006, she inquired about a reduced schedule as an accommodation. Before her employer responded, however, she sustained an injury that greatly aggravated her preexisting conditions. On the first day of December, she met with the ADA Coordinator regarding her reduced schedule request and was told it would not be a reasonable accommodation. Nevertheless, the coordinator requested her medical records "so that she could decide." Months-long absence. However, the employee's September injury led her to take time off in December and January, and in February she stopped working entirely. Between February and May, the employer sent her several letters requesting documentation of the injury, without success. In June she was told she either had to report to work or provide medical documentation. If she did neither, she would be found absent without leave and subjected to discipline. Ultimately she sent her employer a Disability Certificate signed by her physician stating that the September injury left her "Totally Disabled" and she would remain so "indefinitely." The employee, however, stated that she "hope[d]" to return by September 2007. Her employment was terminated. She sued under the ADA, the D.C. Human Rights Act, and the Rehab Act, alleging that the employer refused to accommodate her disability and retaliated against her for requesting accommodation. The district court granted summary judgment for the employer, concluding that no reasonable jury could find she was a qualified individual or that she was fired because of her accommodation request. Refusal to accommodate. On appeal, the D.C. Circuit first found the employee could not show that her initial request for accommodation was denied. Her December conversation with the ADA Coordinator could not form the basis of a claimed denial—the employee's own description of that conversation acknowledged that the coordinator requested further information about her injury, indicating that the coordinator was still trying to reach a decision, not that she had already made one. In fact, the coordinator sent the employee several emails, encouraging her to show up for their scheduled follow-up a few days later and telling her she needed more information about the accommodations she needed. The employee failed to keep the appointment and did not provide any further information until the next June. This showed that the coordinator was engaged in the "often necessary" interactive process, the court explained, and the employee failed to provide evidence raising a genuine dispute as to whether that request was denied. As for the June 2007 telephone call, which the employee argued constituted a second denial of her accommodation request, the court found that the employee was "indisputably not a 'qualified individual' as of that date." She could not show she was able to perform the functions of her position with or without an accommodation because, as of that date in June, she "had not performed a single day of work in more than three months." The only other evidence related to her ability to perform the functions of her job was her physician's certificate from later that month, which stated that she had been, and still was, "Totally Disabled." The certificate further described her disability as indefinite in duration and the most the employee could say was that she hoped to return three months later. Thus, there could be no genuine dispute that she was not a qualified individual on the date of the second request. Retaliation. Similarly, the appeals court affirmed the district court's summary disposal of the employee's retaliation claim. She argued that by firing her, the employer had unlawfully retaliated against her for requesting accommodation. However, the employer contended that it terminated her not because of her request but because she had abandoned her job by failing to report for over three months, without providing repeatedly requested medical documentation. However, when it received the documentation, it stated that the employee had been "Totally Disabled" since her injury in September and that she would remain so "indefinitely." The employee's cover letter advised her employer of her hope to return by the beginning of the following September, but she did not provide any support for that assertion. Further, her argument that the employer provided conflicting rationales for its decision was weak, at best, and the appeals court did not believe a reasonable jury would perceive that a conflict existed. Even if the jury did perceive such a conflict, the employee still would be unable to prove that the "actual reason" was retaliation. Although she argued that the temporal proximity between her second accommodation request and her termination proved the employer's reason was retaliation, something more was required in a case in which the accommodation request "came during the same period in which the employee was entirely unable to perform the functions of her position even with an accommodation."

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