Employers need to set clear expectations for employees in order to avoid ADA lawsuits
“While there are many reasons to file a lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), those reasons must be valid when tested by the courts,” according to Timothy Coffey, a Chicago employment lawyer and principal attorney for The Coffey Law Office, P.C.. “If they are not, the plaintiff may lose his or her case, which is what happened in Samper v. Providence St. Vincent Med. Ctr., 9th Cir., 4/11/12.”
In Samper, the plaintiff neonatal intensive care nurse was a fibromyalgia sufferer, experiencing chronic pain and an inability to sleep soundly or restfully. Her unplanned absences from work were more than allowed, according to the terms of her job description. In working with the nurse to try and accommodate her medical issues, the hospital employer agreed to a very flexible schedule that would allow her to move her shift if she had a day where she was experiencing bad fibromyalgia symptoms.
Even with the new flexible shift arrangement, her rate of attendance in the workplace did not improve, and the hospital fired her. The nurse chose to sue the employer under the ADA, alleging they did not offer her reasonable accommodation, as outlined in the ADA. The hospital’s defense was that, while they did acknowledge she was disabled, they did not feel an open-ended pass to be absence for work was reasonable, especially when working in the neonatal intensive care unit where one’s physical presence is essential.
If the worker was not present at the hospital in the neonatal intensive care unit, then she could not perform her job, whether she had a flexible schedule or not. Since that was the case, and the nurse could not do her work at home, she could not be considered a qualified individual protected under the auspices of the ADA.
“When this case got to court, the legal question of the day was whether or not it was essential showing up for work on a predictable basis,” said Coffey. “The decision was that a nurse in the intensive care unit must be in attendance, not only because it was essential but because it was a matter of life or death. The defendant won the case.”
Not all cases that go to court win, and there is a valuable lesson inherent in this case. Showing up for work on a predictable basis is essential, or a job cannot be performed. Facts like this must be included in the job description, so employees understand exactly what is expected of them. Additionally, employers must make an effort to offer reasonable accommodations for all workers. The hospital made a significant accommodation for the nurse in this case, but she wanted that to exempt her from the very essential nature of the job: being in regular attendance. This means is was not afforded protection under the ADA.
Timothy J. Coffey is an employment lawyer and owner of The Coffey Law Office, P.C., a Chicago employment litigation firm. To learn more, visit http://www.employmentlawcounsel.com