On January 13, the Seventh Circuit issued an opinion in Spurling v. C&M Fine Pack, Inc., 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 660, reversing an Indiana District Court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the employer on a narcoleptic employee’s Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) claim, but affirming the dismissal of the employee’s Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) claims. It is a case with clear implications for employers regarding the ADA and the FMLA.
The plaintiff, Kimberly Spurling, worked the night shift as a factory inspector/packer. Beginning in 2009, she began exhibiting symptoms of decreased alertness on the job, for which she was disciplined on numerous occasions. In February 2010 she received a final warning and suspension upon being found asleep in the restroom during her shift. Following her suspension, she produced a note from her doctor indicating that the symptoms were due to a medication that she was taking and would be discontinuing.
However, Spurling still had difficulty staying awake at work, and in April 2010 she was reported by her supervisor for being completely asleep while packing parts. Management issued her another final warning and suspension pending a possible termination. In addition, the employer gave Spurling a timeframe within which to produce information relevant to management’s deliberation as to whether or not to terminate her.
Spurling met with the human resources manager and informed him that she may have a medical condition. She was given ADA paperwork for her doctor to complete with a two-week deadline; she remained suspended during this period. Spurling claimed that at that meeting she also told the human resources manager that she needed time to find out why she kept falling asleep. Five days later, Spurling returned her completed ADA paperwork to the human resources manager. Her doctor had checked a box indicating that she had a mental or physical disability covered under the ADA, and wrote that Spurling exhibited excessive drowsiness which affected her job performance. He recommended periods of scheduled rest, and also noted “add’n medical work up in progress.”
The human resources manager informed Spurling the paperwork would be sent to corporate for review. Spurling claimed he also informed her that he would meet with her to discuss accommodations. However, no meeting took place, and the human resources manager recommended termination to corporate. A week later, Spurling received notice that she was terminated.
As to her ADA claim, while the lower court granted summary judgment to the employer on the grounds that the employer did not have notice because it had made the decision to terminate her prior to learning of her covered condition, the Seventh Circuit reversed, finding that the employer terminated Spurling after it had notice of her covered disability. The court found that the employer failed to engage in the interactive process with Spurling and her doctor to determine a reasonable accommodation, and held that “while an employer’s failure to engage in the interactive process alone is not an independent basis for liability, it is actionable if it prevents identification of an appropriate accommodation for a qualified individual.” The court found it was actionable, because once Spurling did undergo further testing, it was determined that she had narcolepsy and her condition was controllable with a prescription.
As to her FMLA claim, the court was concerned only with determining whether Spurling provided sufficient notice to her employer of her “serious health condition.” Spurling alleged that prior to her medical examination she informed the human resources manager that she needed time to figure out why she kept falling asleep. The court held that this alone was insufficient to constitute notice of a serious health condition. It reasoned that unless an employer already has knowledge of an employee’s FMLA-qualifying condition, the employee must communicate the grounds to the employer, and Spurling’s remark about her sleep issues and the employer’s knowledge of her past sleep issues did not meet the threshold, because sleeping on the job was prevalent among night shift employees (including Spurling). Moreover it reasoned that because Spurling’s sleep issues had been going on for so long, they “were not something novel that would automatically alert an employer that something was amiss.” Accordingly, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment on the FMLA claim.
What does this mean for employers? With respect to the ADA, employers are reminded to engage their employees in the interactive process once an employee produces evidence of a covered disability. As to the FMLA, employers are reminded that they are not required to investigate whether an employee has a serious health condition at every seemingly trivial request for leave.
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