A federal appeals court has affirmed a judgment in favor of a company accused of disability discrimination, finding because employee never informed her bosses of the nature of her disability and never requested accommodations, she could not prove the reason for her termination was the disability.
Walz v. Ameriprise Fin. Inc. is an interesting case insofar as it deals with mental illness as a disability – which it most certainly can be. However, there remains an intense stigma around such conditions, so that makes it more understandable that a worker would not disclose this condition to employers.
But as this case shows, failure to do so could leave the worker legally unprotected in the event of an adverse employment action. This particular case originated in a federal court in Minnesota, and was most recently weighed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
According to court records, plaintiff worked for defendant company for 14 years, starting in 1996, and for the most part had received positive reviews. Working well with others was key to her job, and she was recruited for the job at least in part because she maintained positive relationships.
However, plaintiff suffers from bipolar affective disorder, which apparently began to worsen during the last year of her employment. She reportedly interrupted meetings, disturbed co-workers and was disrespectful of a supervisor. Co-workers were reportedly “disturbed” by her “erratic” behavior, which included speaking quickly without making sense, being easily agitated and sending nonsensical e-mails.
When her supervisor approached her about these issues and asked if she was Ok, she allegedly responded by being insubordinate and rude, indicating his position wasn’t necessary and calling him a “puppet.” At another meeting with him, she reportedly challenged him to fire her.
Co-workers filed another complaint and supervisor again tried to speak with plaintiff, but the attempt failed, at which point the supervisor issued a formal behavioral warning.
Plaintiff then applied for leave under the Family Medical Leave Act, and the request was approved. Plaintiff never disclosed her reason for seeking leave. When she returned to work 11 months later, she gave her supervisor a note from a doctor indicated she was cleared to return to full-time work and that she was stabilized on medication. At that time, worker signed and reviewed company policy against disability discrimination and the procedure for requesting accommodation.
Things went well initially, but several months in, plaintiff’s behavior again deteriorated, becoming disruptive and erratic. She was aggressive during meetings, intimidating and rude. She was urged to take more caution with her words and actions, but reportedly failed to heed those warnings.
At no point did she advise the company of her condition or request accommodation.
The company fired her because of her repeated misconduct.
She later filed an employment discrimination lawsuit, alleging she was fired because of her disability.
Trial court granted summary judgment to defense because, it found, plaintiff had not proven the termination was based on her disability.
She appealed, but the ruling was affirmed.
Plaintiff had to show she was disabled under the meaning of the Americans with Disabilities Act, that she is a qualified individual under ADA and that she suffered adverse employment action because of her disability. Trial court ruled she failed to prove the third point. Appellate court didn’t actually weigh that point because it determined she failed to meet the burden of proof for the second criteria.
Determining whether a person is qualified under ADA means worker has to prove he or she possesses the requite skills, education, certification and experience necessary for the job, and also that she can, despite impairments, perform essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation.
In this case, essential job functions included the ability to work well with others, engage in teamwork and have adequate communication skills. Here, plaintiff did not prove that, appellate court ruled, and thus, summary judgment was proper.
Contact the employment attorneys at Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Orange County, Riverside and Los Angeles. Call 714-937-2020.
Walz v. Ameriprise Fin., Inc., March 9, 2015, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit
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