How to lose a disability discrimination case in 5 easy steps...

May 24, 2012
By Eric B. Meyer on May 24, 2012 7:00 AM | | Comments

What started out well for the employer...

On April 29, 2009, Catherine Coffman, an employee of Robert J. Young Company, Inc. ("RJY"), got into a motorcycle accident. RJY provided Ms. Coffman with leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Just before Ms. Coffman's FMLA expired, RJY offered to return her to work in a sedentary job that provided the same pay and benefits as her old position. Ms. Coffman rejected the offer because she did not feel that she was able to return to work yet.

D,HO!! or, er, D'oh! Maybe. Well, at least they've tried to correct it.

...Quickly turned bad. Very bad.

Months later, near the end of October, 2009, Ms. Coffman provided RJY with a note stating that she would be able to return to work on November 23, 2009 with minimal restrictions. In response to the note, RJY's Human Resources Director and General Counsel met and decided to fire Ms. Coffman.

Enter the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits an employer from discriminating against a qualified individual on the basis of disability in regard to the discharge of employees. 

Which brings us to the 5 easy steps employers can take to lose an ADA case.

  1. Make a snap judgment that a disabled employee's request for additional leave is unreasonable. Neither RJY's Human Resources Director nor its General Counsel discussed with Ms. Coffman her impairments, condition or intentions to return to work on November 23, 2009.

  2. Heck, don't even consider additional leave as a possible accommodation. RJY did not consider offering Ms. Coffman additional leave from October 28, 2009 to November 23, 2009 as a reasonable accommodation. RJY also failed to show that additional leave would have caused it an undue burden. The deposition testimony from RJY's HR Director is hella-unbelievable.

  3. Don't engage in any interactive dialogue whatsoever with the disabled employee. RJY did not discuss or conduct an interactive process with Ms. Coffman to determine whether any of her job functions could be accommodated.

  4. Don't request any additional medical information. RJY never requested additional medical information from Ms. Coffman's healthcare providers or consult an occupational physician to determine whether she would be able to perform her job duties.

  5. When you fire the disabled employee, be sure to clearly state in the termination letter, "Due to your long term disability we must terminate your employment." Yeah, that happened too.

Based on the foregoing, a Tennessee federal court determined that there was direct evidence that RJY had discriminated against Ms. Coffman on the basis of her disability. Consequently, the court entered summary judgment in favor of Ms. Coffman.

The case is Coffman v. Robert J. Young Company, Inc.