Any employer that fires a disabled worker on the heels of a request for an ADA workplace accommodation – and entirely disregards a doctor’s recommendation – is nothing if not buying trouble. The Seventh Circuit reverses summary judgment on just such a claim, holding that the employee presented a genuine dispute of material fact when she was fired just days after filing paperwork from her physician requesting scheduled rest periods. The record includes deposition testimony by a decision maker that “I don’t believe that the doctor is in a position to make that determination. It is his opinion.”
The opinion tees up the dispute: “Spurling began working for C&M in February 2004 as a Forming Inspector/Packer assigned to the third/night shift. In 2009, she began to exhibit a pattern of decreased consciousness and alertness, for which she received several disciplinary warnings. Spurling received a Final Warning/Suspension on February 15, 2010.”
Spurling’s doctor informed the employer then that her lapses were possibly owing to suspension of medication that Spurling used to avoid passing out. Spurling was, nonetheless, again placed on Final Warning/Suspension on April 15, 2010 – by an email of the same date – for sleeping on the job. The next day, she informed the employer that these incidents were related to a medical condition.
On April 21, 2010, plaintiff’s physician (Dr. Beitzel) filled out the company’s paperwork, writing that she needed “periods of scheduled rest”; he noted “add’n medical work up in progress” at the bottom of the form. Spurling returned it at once. Although the human resources manager assured her that there would be a follow-up meeting within seven days, according to the summary judgment record she was fired without further consultation.
Notably, C&M’s Vice President of Human Resources, Jeffrey Swoyer, testified that the doctor’s notation did not sway him. He “testified during his deposition, ‘I don’t believe that the doctor is in a position to make that determination. It is his opinion.’ Instead of seeking clarification from Dr. Beitzel regarding Spurling’s medical evaluation, C&M chose to proceed with her termination.”
The district court held that the termination decision was already essentially made before plaintiff self-declared her disability; thus the disability, as a matter of law, did not “cause” her being fired.
The Seventh Circuit reverses. It holds that the record was equivocal about whether the termination had actually been made on April 15, 2010. Under Seventh Circuit authority, a termination does not occur until the employer gives “unequivocal notice of termination” – a non-tentative decision, and clear notice to the employee. Here, “Spurling was technically suspended pending a termination decision on April 15, not terminated outright. Indeed, [a human resources manager] informed Spurling that she could present new information that may be ‘relevant to our deliberation,’ which she did.”
The panel also finds a genuine dispute of material fact about the company’s failure to accommodate. “Rather than collaborate with Spurling or her doctor to find a reasonable accommodation, C&M chose to turn a blind eye and terminate her. It did not seek further clarification from either Spurling or her doctor and disregarded the medical evaluation altogether. This hardly engaging with Spurling to determine if a reasonable accommodation could be made . . . . Spurling returned with C&M’s ADA form, on which Dr. Beitzel indicated that she had a condition covered under the ADA. Despite this notation, C&M never contacted Dr. Beitzel to determine the severity of Spurling’s ADA claim or how it might be able to provide a reasonable accommodation.”
The panel affirms summary judgment on Spurling’s FMLA claim, though, holding that the plaintiff failed to establish that she informed the company about having a “serious medical condition.”