Hopefully, your business never has to address a situation where an employee is suffering from progressive memory loss and cognitive decline. But, suppose one of your employees informs you that they have early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
How should the company respond?
Last night, I read a court opinion involving this fact pattern.
The plaintiff worked as an account manager for an insurance agency for over 15 years. Her job included issuing insurance certificates, marketing applications for insurance coverage, drafting emails, and preparing documents for third parties. The parties agreed that the plaintiff performed her duties without difficulty for most of her tenure.
In 2018, however, her work began to suffer. Coworkers and clients complained about her “incompetent and untimely service.” Her mistakes caused the defendant to lose two clients, another asked that the defendant reassign it to a new manager, and a fourth received a threat of legal action because of the plaintiff’s mistake.
The following year, the plaintiff disclosed that she had early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. However, she never asked for a reasonable accommodation, notwithstanding repeated inquiries from the defendant about how it could help her. Nonetheless, the plaintiff’s direct supervisor did help her. He suggested that she take notes at meetings to ensure that she followed his instructions, and over several months, he reduced her workload.
Unfortunately, the plaintiff’s performance at work continued to deteriorate. Eventually, her supervisor issued her performance improvement plan. When her performance did not improve, the company terminated her employment.
The plaintiff then sued for disability discrimination and a failure to accommodate. Sadly, during the litigation, the plaintiff’s condition worsened to the point that she could not continue with her deposition, and she would not be able to testify at trial.
Nonetheless, the case continued, and the defendant moved for summary judgment, which the court granted.
To prevail on a disability discrimination claim, a plaintiff with a disability needs to show that she can perform the essential functions of her job with or without accommodation; otherwise, she is unqualified. Here, the undisputed evidence showed that the plaintiff could no longer perform several tasks outlined as essential functions in her job description. Although the plaintiff claimed that it is “difficult to imagine a scenario” in which she lacked the “basic skills” of her position given her long history with the company, possessing basic skills is different than performing the essential functions on the job.
As for the failure-to-accommodate claim, the plaintiff’s failure to request an accommodation was her undoing. The court noted, “It was not up to the defendant’s employer to divine what accommodations were needed or would be effective.” Still, when the defendant tried to help the plaintiff, she remained unable to perform the essential job functions.
If you are looking for help accommodating employees with Alzheimer’s Disease or other forms of dementia, I suggest you check out this resource from the Job Accommodation Network and my friend Robin Shea‘s compassionate, detailed blog post on this case.