A recent case reiterates the point that, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, it is not possible for an employer to discriminate against an employee for a disability of which it did not know, and that it need not provide accommodations for the unknown disability. Moreover, an employer need not rescind discipline if it later discovers the misconduct was caused by a disability.
Background of the Case. In Hrdlicka v. General Motors, LLC, the employee was unhappy with her assigned department and supervisor, and sought a transfer to another department. She also had significant attendance issues, for which she was counseled, disciplined, and warned of possible termination. The employee asserted that, in a final meeting with Human Resources before her termination for attendance issues, she mentioned that she had been experiencing severe depression due to her work environment, which caused her tardiness. The employee appealed her termination through the employer’s open door policy. While her termination was pending, she was diagnosed with Persistent Depressive Disorder and a brain tumor. After her appeal was denied, she sued her employer for disability discrimination and failure to accommodate under the ADA and the analogous state law.
The Employer Had No Notice of a Disability. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit rejected the employee’s claims. It noted that neither she nor her employer was aware of any purported disability until well after her termination. Moreover, she never sought any medical help while employed. The Sixth Circuit noted that a medical diagnosis is not necessary for an ADA claim to succeed; however, there must be enough relevant information to put the employer on notice of a disability.
The employee pointed to text messages to her supervisor, which variously referred to headaches, fevers, being “sick,” “having a tough time,” and dealing with “a mental thing.” However, the Sixth Circuit found the messages to be insufficient to put the supervisor and employer on notice of any disability. As the Sixth Circuit noted, “A general awareness of some symptoms is not enough to show that the defendant knew of the plaintiff’s disability.”
The Sixth Circuit also rejected the argument that the employee’s reference to her depression in an HR meeting put the employer on notice. As the Sixth Circuit observed, the employee attributed her depression to personality conflicts with her supervisor and her work environment. However, “personality conflicts, workplace stress, and being unable to work with a particular person or persons do not rise to the level of a ‘disability’ or inability to work for purposes of the ADA.” Moreover, depression does not always render an employee “disabled.”
There Was No Request for Accommodation. The employee contended that her request for a transfer was a request for accommodation. The Sixth Circuit, however, determined that the request was linked only to her dislike of her department and co-workers, and that it was never linked to a disability – thus, she did not make a request for reasonable accommodation.
But even if she had connected it to a disability, her request was not reasonable. The Sixth Circuit asserted that, “a transfer request is not reasonable if it was made to avoid working with certain people.” This is in line with the well-established principle that reassignment to a different supervisor is never a reasonable accommodation.
Moreover, the Sixth Circuit found the request to be untimely. “When an employee requests an accommodation for the first time only after it becomes clear that an adverse employment action is imminent, such a request can be ‘too little, too late.’”
Lessons for Employers. This case reiterates the point that employees, as well as employers, have obligations under the ADA.
- They are required to put their employers on notice of any disability, and while there are no “magic words” that must be used (such as “disability” or “ADA”), there must be enough information to enable the employer to recognize that the employee has a mental or physical condition that is substantially limiting their ability to meet work standards. Vague references to feeling sick or unwell, or to generic symptoms, will not be enough.
- Similarly, if the employee is requesting an accommodation, they must make it clear that it is because of a disability, in order to trigger the reasonable accommodations interactive process under the ADA.
- Additionally, the accommodation request must be reasonable – and a change in supervisor is not reasonable.
- Moreover, any accommodation request must come in advance of an imminent or actual disciplinary action.
This case also reminds employers that they may make employment decisions based on the information that they have at the time. And if it later turns out that the misconduct on which the decision was based arose from a disability, the employer need not reverse its decision.