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Employer on Notice of Employee’s Medical Condition Should Proceed Cautiously

By Kenneth J. Diamond  2/13/2014
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A former employee of an Illinois packing company who was fired after repeatedly falling asleep on the job raised triable claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held.

In February 2004, Kimberly Spurling began working for C&M Fine Pack Inc. as an inspector-packer on the third night shift. In 2009, she began having trouble staying awake and received several disciplinary warnings. On Feb. 15, 2010, she received a final warning/suspension. That same day, one of her co-workers found her sleeping in the restroom. Spurling told C&M managers that her sleep issues were due to a medication she was taking. She also provided a doctor’s note indicating she would stop taking that drug.

Spurling, nevertheless, continued to have difficulty staying awake. On April 12, 2010, she fell asleep while packing parts. Three days later, she received another final warning/suspension. She then told Paul Bellant, C&M’s human resource manager, that her issues might be related to her medical condition. Bellant gave her a letter on the ADA and medical-certification paperwork for her doctor to complete. Later that day, in an e-mail to Vice President of Human Resources Jeffrey Swoyer, Bellant recommended that Spurling be terminated. 

On April 21, 2010, Spurling delivered the medical certification to Bellant. Although he promised there would be an interactive meeting with her on April 26, no meeting occurred. On April 28, after Bellant again recommended to Swoyer that Spurling be fired, she was dismissed. On May 27, Spurling received a definitive diagnosis of narcolepsy. She sued C&M, alleging disability discrimination and failure to accommodate under the ADA. 

In granting C&M’s summary judgment motion, the trial court found that Spurling’s employment was terminated on April 15, 2010, the date that Bellant initially recommended she be fired. The court pointed out that C&M could not have violated the ADA because it terminated her before learning of her medical condition.  

The 7th Circuit disagreed. It noted that a termination occurs when there is both a final, ultimate, nontentative decision to terminate the employee and an unequivocal notice to the employee of the employer’s final termination decision. As Spurling’s termination was not communicated to her until April 28, 2010, the 7th Circuit held she was let go after C&M knew she had an ADA-covered condition and the company did not engage in an interactive process with her to find a reasonable accommodation. The 7th Circuit thus reversed the summary judgment ruling and remanded the case for further proceedings.     

Spurling v. C&M Fine Pack, Inc., 7th Cir., No. 13-1708 (Jan. 13, 2014). 

Professional Pointer: When there is reason to believe that an employee’s performance issues may be related to a medical condition, even if the employer has a strong record documenting those issues, it should proceed cautiously, obtain further information and work with the employee to explore potential reasonable accommodations before making any final disciplinary decision. 

Kenneth J. Diamond is an attorney at Winterbauer & Diamond PLLC, the Worklaw® Network member firm in Seattle.

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