Monday, August 4, 2008

Termination versus reasonable accommodation under the ADA

McNary v. Schreiber Foods, Inc. (8th Cir. 8/1/08) asks the question - if a diabetic employee needs to take a break on the job, but is perceived to be sleeping, can the employer lawfully terminate that employee.

David McNary, suffers from Graves disease (an autoimmune disorder with  symptoms that include fatigue) and diabetes. He worked for Schreiber Foods for six years as a sanitation employees on its dairy equipment. Despite his medical conditions, he was never under any work restrictions. However, McNary had many conversations with his co-workers and supervisors about his need for breaks. On occasion, when he felt he could not perform certain tasks due to dizziness and other symptoms, his co-workers stepped in to help him.

On September 22, 2005, while cleaning some trash compactors, McNary became dizzy, sick to his stomach, and light-headed. He left the compactors and sat down, put his feet up on a table, and closed his eyes. According to McNary, he simply took a break but was not sleeping. Two supervisors found him sitting at a table with his head back, his mouth open, and his eyes shut, and he did not appear to have heard an intercom that sounded. McNary denied that he was sleeping, and explained his medical conditions. The Company subsequently terminated him for sleeping on the job.

The Court found that the Company had a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for terminating McNary and was unsympathetic to his claim of pretext:

Federal courts do not sit as a super-personnel department that reexamines an entity's business decisions. One reason we emphasize this point is that a number of plaintiffs present a sympathetic situation in which the employer's judgment in imposing discipline may appear poor or erroneous to outsiders. It is tempting to think that the role of the federal courts is to offer a remedy in that sort of case. Whether we might believe that [Schreiber] was unduly harsh in its treatment of [McNary], however, is not a matter to be considered in deciding this appeal. Our authority is to determine only whether there is a genuine issue for trial on the question whether [Schreiber] discharged [McNary] because of his [disability].

This case, however, should be not have been litigated over the propriety of the termination decision, but instead whether the Company had an obligation to reasonably accommodate McNary's conditions. Remember, the ADA does not only prohibit companies from discriminating against individuals with disabilities, but also requires that companies make reasonable accommodation to enable qualified individuals with disabilities to perform the essential functions of the job. By focusing the termination decision, McNary picked a much more difficult battle to win. Had he focused on the accommodation issue, the company would have had to argue that an unscheduled 15 minute break imposed an undue hardship. That point would have been difficult for the company to win in light of McNary's co-workers' past practice of stepping in to help him when he needed a break.

The takeaway for employers from this case is that just because you can terminate an employee does not necessarily mean that you should. This case could have come out differently if the employee had focused on the lack of an accommodation instead of on the decision to terminate. Any time an employer is dealing with a disabled employee, it is best for the employer to tread very lightly. As this case illustrates, the ADA often raises highly nuanced legal issues, and it may be best to get an opinion from counsel before making the decision.