Employees who suffer from documented disabilities, require medical leave from work and who are terminated by employers, may have claims for disability discrimination under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA); as well as claims under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
In Knight v. Callebaut USA Service Company, E. D. Pa. no. 15-6450 (December 19, 2016, Hart, M. J.), the employee was a production supervisor at a cocoa and chocolate factory diagnosed with Chrohn’s disease. The employee was hospitalized twice after experiencing abdominal pain; received treatment for bowel obstructions; and experienced diarrhea multiple times every day. Due to flare ups of his medical condition, the employee needed brief periodic breaks from ten minutes to one hour from zero to three times per shift while he was working to allow him to vomit outside. The employee had conversations with the employer’s Human Resources Manager and Site Manager to let them know what was going on. After a second three-day hospitalization, the employee was advised that his employment was terminated for an alleged theft of time and not doing his job by being on the plant floor for extended times during his work hours. The employer did not discipline the employee or allow him to explain why he was outside of the facility before terminating his employment. The employee alleged that the employer terminated his employment because of his actual/perceived disabilities and/or in retaliation for requesting reasonable accommodations; and that the employer never properly advised the employee of his FMLA rights and discouraged him from applying for FMLA leave.
To establish a prima facie case of disability discrimination, an employee must show that: (1) the employee is disabled within the meaning of the ADA; (2) is otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodations; and (3) the employee suffered an adverse employment decision based on that disability. The burden then shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate business reason for the termination of employment and then the employee must then demonstrate that the stated reason is merely a pretext for discrimination.
To satisfy the ADA’s definition of disability, an employee may demonstrate: (1) an actual mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; (2) a record of such impairment; or (3) that the employer regarded the employee as having a disability.
To establish a failure to accommodate a disability under the ADA, an employee must prove: (1) the employee is disabled, (2) is otherwise qualified to perform essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodations by the employer, and (3) the employer refused to provide a proposed reasonable accommodation, or failed to engage in an interactive process after the employee requested an available reasonable accommodation.
In Knight, the court held that the employer was at least aware of the employee’s health condition and there was disputed evidence that there was a request for some sort of leave of absence for medical treatment, which could constitute a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. Thus, there was sufficient evidence for the case to proceed to trial on the ADA request for reasonable accommodation claim. The court also concluded that the employee could demonstrate a prima facie case of disability discrimination since it was undisputed that the employee requested leave for medical treatment when admitted to the hospital. Further, given that the employee was terminated immediately after returning from a leave that occurred after he had to leave his shift for medical reasons, there was sufficient evidence to create a factual question of pretext, permitting the ADA disability discrimination claim to proceed to trial.
The FMLA provides that it is unlawful for any employer to interfere with, restrain, or deny the exercise of FMLA rights. To establish FMLA interference, an employee must demonstrate: (1) that the employee was entitled to benefits under the FMLA and (2) the employer denied FMLA benefits. An employee is not required to expressly invoke the FMLA; the employee must only provide notice of the request for leave and state a qualifying reason for the leave. A scheduled block of time for treatment and testing or intermittent leave is protected by the FMLA and an employer’s failure to advise an employee of FMLA rights can constitute an interference of the employee’s FMLA rights.
In Kline, the court held that the employee provided sufficient facts to support a FMLA interference claim in that he was deprived of the right to make informed decisions and to plan accordingly when structuring his leave because he was not advised of his rights to 12 weeks or intermittent periods of job protected leave.
In a FMLA retaliation claim, an employee must demonstrate that (1) the employee is protected under the FMLA, (2) the employee suffered an adverse employment action, and (3) the adverse action was causally related to the exercise of FMLA rights. Then the burden shifts to the employee to provide evidence of a legitimate reason for the adverse employment action. Once the employer sets forth a legitimate reason, the employee must point to some evidence that the employer’s reasons for the adverse action are pretextual.
In Kline, the court held that the employee’s need to take time off to treat his medical condition was both a request for accommodation under the ADA and a request for leave under the FMLA. In so doing, the court found that the fact that the employer classified the employee’s leave as FMLA is sufficient to set forth a prima facie case that FMLA rights had been invoked and that the termination of employment was clearly an adverse employment action. As to the casual connection requirement, the fact that employment was terminated immediately upon return from leave was sufficient evidence of causation; particularly combined with fact that the employee has no prior disciplinary history. Thus, the FMLA retaliation claim could also proceed to trial.
For more information on the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), Disability Discrimination and Abramson Employment Law, see http://www.job-discrimination.com/lawyer-attorney-1126523.html, job-discrimination.com/lawyer-attorney-1126511.htm, http://www.job-discrimination.com/lawyer-attorney-2122109.html