Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Silence can be golden when dealing with employee medical issues

“Regarded as” disability discrimination claims are supposed to be blind to whether an employee actually suffers from a physical or mental impairment that limits a major life activity. These claims protect individuals who are able to meet a job’s requirements from an employer’s perception of an inability to perform the job’s functions because of a medical condition.

What happens, however, when an employer makes a personnel decision with no knowledge that the employee suffers from some medical condition? Can the employee still claim that the employer “regarded” him or her as disabled? According to one recent decision from an Ohio court of appeals, the answer is no.

In Field v. Medlab Ohio (11/1/12) [pdf], the employee alleged that her employer transferred to her a less favorable sales territory and ultimately terminated her because it perceived her as suffering from alcoholism (a protected disability).

The court disagreed, because Medlab had no knowledge of Field’s condition at the time it made its decisions regarding her employment:

There is nothing in the record that shows that MedLab had any knowledge that Field suffered from alcoholism or any mental disorder as defined. Moreover, the record establishes that any transfer or reassignment of territories occurred prior to MedLab learning that Field was hospitalized or that she was having a “nervous breakdown.” Finally, Field was not terminated from employment with MedLab until after Field continued to perform unsatisfactorily in her new “smaller” territory. The record reflects that at no time did MedLab refer to her hospitalization or any mental disorder as the reason for transfer or termination. The record supports that Field’s termination was based on job performance, and Field has failed to show that MedLab’s reasons for termination were merely pretexts.

It’s easy to communicate to managers and supervisors the concept that personnel decisions should be made in a vacuum free from any consideration of medial conditions. It’s difficult, however, for decision makers always to remain silent on these issues. One inopportune slip of the tongue about an employee’s medical condition (or perceived medical condition) could convert a defensible disability discrimination claim into a knock-down, drag-out fight culminating in a risky jury trial. Field v. Medlab Ohio illustrates that good outcomes do result from employment decisions made without reference to impairments, regardless of the employee’s underlying medical issues.