Stroke Victim Wanted More from Flossmoor under ADA

Sometimes it seems an employer has done a lot to accommodate an employee under the ADA, yet the employee claims the employer should have done more.  The Seventh Circuit addressed such a situation in Swanson v. Village of Flossmoor (7th Cir. July 24, 2015).

A police detective in the Village of Flossmoor, IL had two strokes within six weeks. After the first stroke, the detective requested FMLA leave, which the Village granted.   Three weeks later, pursuant to his doctor’s note, he requested to work part-time for a month, which the Village granted.  A few weeks later, he had his second stroke, which left him unable to work at all.

Seven weeks after his second stroke, he applied for FMLA retroactively, which the Village granted.  A week after his FMLA expired, he was released to return to work without restrictions but before he returned, he had another medical incident. He resigned five days later, stating that he was “simply physically unable to return to [his] duties” due to his stroke. He asked to stay on an unpaid leave of absence before retiring, which would allow him to continue to obtain health insurance.  The Village granted his request.  He applied to the Village Pension Board for a disability pension. The Board granted his request.

After his resignation, he filed an ADA charge, alleging that after his first stroke, he had asked for light duty and was told that light duty was not available. He claimed that the police department’s manual gave the department discretion to grant light duty and its failure to discuss that option with him was a failure to engage in the interactive dialogue required by the ADA.

The Seventh Circuit affirmed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment to the Village of Flossmoor. Flossmoor did enough, according to the Court.”[T]he Village’s accommodation (and, frankly, its general treatment of [the plaintiff] in the wake of his medical issues seems quite reasonable here.”

The Evolving Paid Sick Leave Patchwork

Montgomery County, MD and Oregon passed it. California had passed it, then amended it within days after its effective date. In Massachusetts, the Attorney General issued regulations to implement it, and a court said the National Labor Relations Act does not preempt it.  North Carolina, Maryland and New Jersey (and likely others) are considering it.

Employees in Minneapolis and Spokane, WA rallied to demand it. Michigan said no Michigan city can have it. A Michigan group is collecting signatures to have a state-wide referendum on it (it has never been defeated when voters vote on it).

The “it,” of course, is a paid sick leave law.  Four states (CA, CT, MA, OR), the District of Columbia, one county (Montgomery, MD) and another 20 or so municipalities have enacted paid sick leave laws. While there is some consistency in the structure of all of these laws, each has its own unique components. National and multi-jurisdiction employers are struggling to develop a paid sick leave policy that meets all of the requirements of all of these laws.

In March 2013, this blog predicted a paid sick leave mega-trend. As we said then, “the patchwork challenge has nothing to do with the social question of whether there should or should not be paid sick days. The challenge is the proliferation of leave and attendance laws and how they interact with each other.” With only 4 of 50 states and a couple dozen of thousands of counties and municipalities having enacted such a law, we have only just begun.

FMLA and ADA Claims Dismissed Where Employer Continued Misconduct Investigation During Employee’s Three Leaves

The situation is not that uncommon. An employer learns of a performance incident and the employee involved promptly requests FMLA leave. The employer then must decide how to address the incident while avoiding the risk of an FMLA or ADA claim. Will the law protect an employer that provides the employee FMLA leave while investigating the misconduct allegations against that employee?

Such employer efforts were upheld in the Fourth Circuit’s decision dismissing FMLA and ADA claims in Adams v. Anne Arundel County Public Schools (4th Cir. June 15, 2015). The plaintiff, Andrew Adams, an assistant principal, was accused of physically accosting a student at his middle school. Child Protective Services investigated and cleared Adams. The School Board launched its own investigation and temporarily reassigned Adams to another school. While that investigation was ongoing, Adams was set to return to his original school but requested, and was granted, FMLA leave for stress, anxiety and high blood pressure related to the abuse allegations. When Adams returned to work a few weeks later, he alleged that the principal verbally berated him. Adams requested and was granted a second leave beginning that same day. Adams returned to work yet again and claimed the principal berated him again. Two weeks later, Adams began a third leave that exhausted his FMLA entitlement. During this third leave, the Board required Adams to meet three times with a psychologist of its choosing. That doctor and Adams’s doctor required that Adams be assigned to a lower stress environment upon his return. Also during this leave, the Board met with Adams and his attorney regarding its investigation and issued a written reprimand to him.  The Board later notified Adams that he would be transferred to a smaller school with a lower stress environment. According to the applicable labor contract, there would be no reduction in Adams’ salary for at least two years despite his being at a smaller school.

Adams’s claimed that by the reprimands and transfer, his employer interfered with his FMLA rights, discriminated against him in violation of the ADA, and retaliated against him for exercising his rights under both the FMLA and ADA. The court rejected his claims, noting that the right to reinstatement after FMLA leave is not “absolute” but is limited to the position or equivalent that he would have retained absent taking leave. Additionally, the Court noted that Adams was not denied any leave and that  the FMLA expressly permits an employer to seek a second medical opinion related to how long an employee would be out and/or how to fashion an appropriate environment for the employee’s return to work. The court also noted that the Board’s investigation was intrinsically connected to its duty to ensure the safety of its students and that the Board accorded Adams due process at every step of its investigation.

The court dismissed the ADA claims based on similar analysis, holding that Adams’ transfer to a school where his pay ultimately may be reduced by less than 1% was not an adverse employment action. The court also noted that the Board acted appropriately by making timely efforts to effectuate the doctors’ recommendations to reasonably accommodate Adams by returning him to work in a lower stress environment. The court noted that “less stressful jobs may on occasion be less remunerative. That tradeoff does not invalidate the Board’saction [transferring Adams as a reasonable accommodation] in these circumstances.”

Notably, this decision centered on an investigation that started before any FMLA leave or notice of disability; and, while that investigation continued for several months, the employer followed its established investigation process and communicated with the employee throughout the process. This careful approach contributed to the Board’s successful defense.

Massachusetts Earned Sick Time Law Update: Final Regulations Issued

Thanks to our colleague Jeffrey S. Brody for this post.

The Massachusetts Attorney General’s office has issued the long-awaited final regulations for the Massachusetts Earned Sick Time Law.   The final regulations are available from the AG’s website, at http://www.mass.gov/ago/doing-business-in-massachusetts/labor-laws-and-public-construction/earned-sick-time/.

Jackson Lewis will be discussing the final regulations in our complimentary webinar, “Navigating Massachusetts’ New Paid Sick Leave Law,” on June 24, 2015. To register for the webinar, go to: http://jacksonlewis.com/events/locations/view/2762.

Doctor’s Hope for Change Insufficient to Support ADA Accommodation Request

Medicine being an inexact science, doctors’ notes concerning an employee’s ability to work with a particular accommodation are often tinged with optimism yet hedged by a less than definitive prediction about the likelihood of success.   How much of a health care provider’s hope for change—some would say speculation or wishful thinking–must an employer accept when evaluating whether a requested accommodation will enable an employee to perform the essential functions of the position?

The Seventh Circuit’s recent decision in Stern v. St. Anthony’s Health Center (7th Cir. June 4, 2015) is a good place to start the analysis. There, the health care provider of a chief psychologist with memory loss said that “’it is possible that currently [the psychologist] would be more likely to be able to complete routine clinical duties’ by better note taking, completing documentation immediately” and eliminating or reducing certain duties. These steps would “likely” allow the doctor to compensate for his memory loss “more effectively.”

These “conclusory,” “speculative,” and “untested suggestions” and opinions were insufficient to create a factual issue about whether the plaintiff could perform the essential functions of his position with an accommodation, according to the court. It upheld a grant of summary judgment to the defendant on that issue.

In reaching its conclusion, the court revisited three of its prior decisions on this issue. The prediction about the employee’s ability to work with an accommodation was too speculative in two of them. In one, a doctor’s note state that “there was a good chance” that the plaintiff would be able to return to work with treatment.” This was “too conclusory and uninformative” to support a conclusion that more leave would have been successful, the court said. In the second case, the plaintiff’s evidence was that “she had hoped for enough improvement to return to work regularly after leave” but failed to produce “medical evidence regarding the effectiveness of the treatment.”  In the third case, the plaintiff’s evidence “suggest[ed] that a reasonable accommodation was readily available; [plaintiff] simply needed further medical testing and a prescription to control her narcolepsy.” The court held that that evidence was sufficient to create a question about whether the plaintiff could work with an accommodation.

Of course, there are many gradations between “just needs a prescription” on one end of the “hope for change” continuum and the speculative untested suggestions on the other.

New Jersey Lobbying Efforts Focused on Paid Sick Leave

In 2014, the introduction and passage of paid sick leave laws was one of the most popular issues among state and local legislatures around the United States.  There has been significant debate among employee and employer-interest groups regarding the efficacy of these laws.  It appears, based upon a report from the state Election Law Enforcement Commission, that this debate was similarly active among New Jersey lobbying groups.

In light of an apparent heightened interest among New Jersey municipalities in enacting paid sick leave laws (to date, nine have done so), the New Jersey Assembly and Senate introduced legislation in 2014 which would require employers to provide paid sick leave time to their employees.  If enacted, this law would preempt all previously enacted paid sick leave ordinances in New Jersey.  Since its introduction, it appears New Jersey lobbying groups have dug in their heels in support of their respective positions.

According to a recent report from a Rutgers University doctoral student interning at the state Election Law Enforcement Commission, this pending legislation was the most heavily lobbied bill in 2014.  The paid sick leave lobbying efforts exceeded efforts regarding, among other things, legislation regarding heroin/opiate abuse and legislation which would allow a terminally ill patient to end his or her life.

Similarly, following the passage of the paid sick leave ordinance in Trenton, a coalition of business groups filed a complaint challenging the constitutionality of the ordinance.  In April 2015, a New Jersey Superior Court Judge threw out this petition, landing a significant blow to employer-interest lobbying efforts on the municipal-level.

Nevertheless, based upon this interest and debate among lobbying groups in New Jersey, the questions of whether a paid sick leave law will be enacted on a state level is poised to be a hotly-contested issue as we move towards the 2016 elections, especially in light of questions surrounding Governor Chris Christie and his potential bid for the United States presidency.  Stay tuned.

Eight Hours to be an FMLA “Overnight” Success

How long must an employee be in the hospital to satisfy the “overnight stay” requirement of the FMLA?  “[F]or a substantial period of time from one calendar day to the next calendar day as measured by the individual’s time of admission and time of discharge,” according to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.  Bonkowski v. Oberg Industries, Inc. (3rd Cir. May 22, 2015). At least eight hours would meet the “substantial period” requirement, the Court added.

The FMLA defines a “serious health condition” as an “an illness, injury, impairment, or physical or mental condition that involves (A) inpatient care in a hospital, hospice, or residential medical care facility; or (B) continuing treatment by a health care provider.” Section 825.114 of the DOL’s regulations defines “inpatient care” as “an overnight stay in a hospital, hospice, or residential medical care facility…”   “Overnight” is not defined in the law or regulations.

The plaintiff had arrived at the hospital shortly before midnight, was admitted to the hospital shortly after midnight and was discharged the evening of the same day he was admitted.

The district court held that an employee must be in the hospital from sunset on one day to sunrise the next to meet the “overnight stay” requirement. Since the plaintiff did not meet this test, he did not have an “overnight” stay, according to the district court. The Third Circuit rejected this approach because sunset-sunrise times vary through the year and by geographic location. The court noted that in Fairbanks, Alaska, the time from sunset to sunrise could vary from less than three hours to more than twenty hours, depending on the time of year. Nonetheless, the Court affirmed summary judgment for the employer because the plaintiff “did not stay in the hospital from one calendar day to the next calendar day as measured by his time of admission and time of discharge.”

The Court also rejected the “totality of the circumstances” approach, although the dissenting judge espoused this view. The dissent cited studies to establish that various factors affect the time of a hospital admission, including the wait time to see a physician, the day of the week the individual comes to the hospital and transportation issues that affect arrival time at the hospital.  The “totality” approach “offers a practical and more equitable inquiry into an employee’s hospital experience,” according to the dissent.

Ink Spilt, Views Split on Attendance as Essential Job Function under ADA

What better place to contemplate the ADA issue of whether coming to work is an essential function of a job than at the recent Disability Management Employer Coalition (DMEC) Compliance Conference, an annual three day seminar for those who toil in the depths of disability leave management and love every minute of it?

It all began with a discussion of EEOC v. Ford Motor Company, the Sixth Circuit en banc decision just a few weeks ago, rejecting the EEOC’s claim that Ford denied a resale buyer a reasonable accommodation by not letting her work from home up to four days per week.

“Is regular and predictable on-site job attendance an essential function (and a prerequisite to perform other essential functions) of [the] resale-buyer job? We hold that it is,” concluded the Sixth Circuit, or at least the eight judges in the majority opinion.  Observing that it was not the first court to conclude that regular and predictable attendance is an essential function, the court added: “We do not write on a clean slate. Much ink has been spilled establishing a general rule that, with few exceptions, ‘an employee who does not come to work cannot perform any of his job functions, essential or otherwise.’” (citations omitted).

The ink the EEOC spilt on that issue espouses precisely the opposite view. In its 2002 Guidance on Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship under the ADA, in footnote 65, the EEOC said: “Certain courts have characterized attendance as an ‘essential function’… Attendance, however, is not an essential function as defined by the ADA because it is not one of ‘the fundamental job duties of the employment position’…. As the regulations make clear, essential functions are duties to be performed.” (citations omitted).

Speaking at the DMEC Conference, EEOC Commissioner Victoria A. Lipnic cited the EEOC’s official position in its 2002 Guidance, but noted that her personal opinion is that attendance is an essential function.

The 25th anniversary of the ADA is just weeks away. Enough ink has been spilt on the issue of whether showing up for work is an essential function of a job. Woody Allen observed that 80% of life is “showing up.” Shouldn’t the same be said for work?

EEOC Releases Proposed Rule on Workplace Wellness Programs

The EEOC today released for public comment its proposed rule to amend its regulations and interpretive guidance as they relate to wellness programs, including the size of incentives an employer may offer yet still have a “voluntary” wellness program under the ADA. For additional information concerning the proposed rule, click here.

Back to the Future on Paid Family Leave and Sick Days

Commenting on paid leave recently, U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez said:

We are on the cusp of huge breakthroughs on paid family leave and paid sick days. I believe that in 30 years, we will look back at this as the moment we began to turn the corner, when a sleeper issue finally began to awaken and when grass roots momentum began to gather steam and roll toward a broad national consensus.

No one can seriously doubt that we are on a cusp of expanding paid family leave and sick days. The number of jurisdictions with paid sick leave laws has more than doubled in a year; numerous states are focused on how to provide pay during family and medical leave.

Secretary Perez looks into his crystal ball and predicts that 30 years hence, we will look back to today as the moment when “we began to turn the corner” toward a national consensus on paid family leave and sick days. We are all familiar with the admonition that past results are not a guarantee of future performance. But based on the proliferation of leave laws in the past 30 years, I suspect that in the next 30 years, the compliance challenge for employers will grow exponentially and from the leave management perspective, employers will be longing for “the good old days.”

Thirty years ago, there were no federal leave laws and just a smattering of state leave laws, most relating to workers compensation and pregnancy. Since then, the federal government has passed the Family and Medical Leave Act and the ADA, the latter referred to by at least one EEOC Commissioner as an “inadvertent leave law.”  Beyond that, we have a stew of state and municipality leave laws. A dozen or so states have passed their own versions of family and medical leave laws, some of which are similar to the federal FMLA, others much less so, each with its own idiosyncrasies. Then we have 22 jurisdictions (3 states and 19 cities), and counting, that have enacted paid sick leave (PSL) laws.  There is no consistency in these laws: what employers are covered; what employees are eligible; what notice an employer must give or an employee must give. Also, it is unclear whether or how these PSL laws are integrated into the state and federal family and medical leave laws. There is a collection of other state and local leave laws dealing with family and medical issues, but you get the picture.  Add it all up, and the leave management challenge for a multi-state employer committed to compliance is daunting.

Can it get any more complicated? I have asked myself this many times.  Looking into my crystal ball, the answer is “absolutely.”  More leave laws with little or no consistency and no effort to integrate them into a coherent leave approach will make leave management more complicated, and that is what is likely to occur in the next 30 years. Perhaps the focus of leave laws for the next 30 years should be on uniformity and integration. Let’s look to the future for that direction.

LexBlog