Tuesday, April 16, 2019

That's how the ball bounces: 6th Circuit says that the ADA does not require a new supervisor as a reasonable accommodation

Cindy Tinsley was so stressed.

How stressed was she?

She was so stressed that even something as simple as her co-workers at Caterpillar Financial Services bouncing stress balls off the ground would trigger her post-traumatic stress disorder.

Tinsley, who worked as a Business System Analyst for Caterpillar Financial, believed that the stress of her job was causing her to suffer adverse health issues. She emailed her supervisor, Paul Kaikaris, asking to be removed from a particular project, claiming that her "many [work] responsibilities … [were] causing [her] to be stressed beyond what [she was] physically able to handle," which "negatively impact[ed her] work, sleep, and overall health." Kaikaris met with Tinsley and said he would see what he could do to take work off her plate. Six days later, however, Tinsey submitted a doctor's note requesting four days off for a "confidential medical condition." Upon her return, Kaikaris, good to his word, met with her and reassigned some of her projects.

Her job performance, however, continued to suffer. Kaikaris informed Tinsley that she was not following the prescribed methodology for completing her work, the quality of her work was subpar, and she had been leaving work early without prior approval. A poor formal mid-year review and a Performance Improvement Plan followed. 

In response, Tinsley claimed that Kaikaris rated her poorly and assigned the PIP in retaliation for her complaints that he had enabled a "hostile work environment" by permitting co-workers to bounce stress balls off the ground. Thereafter, Tinsley began submitting doctors' notes ad seriatum requesting more time off for "mental and emotional duress brought on by an over-excessive workload, unrealistic deadlines, a hostile work environment and a manager's reckless indifference to [her] mental and emotional well-being." Those notes culminated in the company granting a five-week FMLA leave of absence.

At the end of Tinsley's FMLA leave, her doctor cleared her to return to work "at full capacity." However, because of her "post-traumatic stress disorder," her doctor recommended that Caterpillar Financial return her "in a different work environment and specifically under a different manager." The company refused the transfer or managerial change, but did permit her to take an additional eight weeks of medical leave (totaling 18 for the year).

At the end of that leave, and with Tinsley still insisting on a new manager, Caterpillar Financial decided that it had enough. It told her that it could not accommodate her "confidential" medical condition and that it did not believe that her request for a transfer to a different supervisor was a reasonable accommodation.

In Tinsley v. Caterpillar Financial Services, the 6th Circuit agreed.

Tinsley has asserted that her impairment (PTSD) impacted only the major life activity of working.… Thus, we must now examine whether Tinsley's PTSD sufficiently limited her ability to perform a class of jobs or a broad range of jobs. The evidence demonstrates that it did not.… [T]he record is replete with undisputed evidence showing that Tinsley's issues stemmed directly from Kaikaris' management style as opposed to the responsibilities of a broad range of jobs. The clearest example of this is when Tinsley told Human Resources that she would be able to continue in the same position so long as she was under the direction of a different supervisor because her disability was triggered by "the way [Kaikaris] managed … with all the ball bouncing." … Tinsley's diagnosis does not limit her ability to work a broad class of jobs; rather, it relates solely to her ability to work under a specific manager. Accordingly, she is not "disabled" pursuant to the ADA and was thus not entitled to a reasonable accommodation of additional time off or a transfer.

The ADA covers working as a major life activity. However, for an employee to be "substantially limited" in that major life activity, it is not enough to be unable to perform the specific job. The employee must be "significantly restricted in the ability to perform either a class of jobs or a broad range of jobs in various classes as compared to the average person having comparable training, skills, and abilities."

This court reached the absolute correct result. It wasn't that Tinsley couldn't work as a Business System Analyst, but that she just could not work under Kaikaris. Her own doctor said as much when he released her to return to work "at full capacity."

If faced with a disabled employee claiming a substantial limitation in their ability to work, examine the request carefully. The ADA's coverage of disabilities is broad. However, it is often difficult for an employee to establish "working" as a substantially limited major life activity. And, unless the employee cannot work in a class or broad range of jobs, the ADA does not cover them and you don't have to offer to accommodate.

* Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash