A Michigan district court recently ruled that a former pharmacy technician could proceed with her Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) claims despite evidence that the employer hospital took steps to accommodate her medical condition. Eagle v. Hurley Medical Center, E.D. Mich. No. 4:12-cv-13704, June 27, 2013.

Marsha Eagle worked for Hurley Medical Center as a pharmacy technician. Her primary assignments were unit dose dispensing (distributing medications to patients) and intravenous admixture (“IVAD” – creating injectable mixtures). In 2008 or 2009, according to court records, she was diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease that causes fatigue and joint pain. In 2009, the hospital granted Ms. Eagle medical leave due to her lupus. In 2010, she returned to work and requested a work-hour restriction accommodation, requiring that she not work more than 8-hour shifts. The ADA request, supported with medical documentation, also instructed that she was not to work during cellulitis episodes, i.e., flare up of her lupus. In 2011, the hospital granted Ms. Eagle intermittent FMLA leave due to lupus flare-ups. Ms. Eagle never requested a change in her assignment – dispensing versus IVAD – as an accommodation for her lupus.

On July 14, 2011, when Ms. Eagle arrived at work, she learned she was assigned to the dispensing job for that shift. Ms. Eagle had worked the dispensing job for the three days prior with no lunch coverage. She testified the dispensing job was physically more demanding than the IVAD because it required her to be on her feet more, a fact supported by one of the hospital’s pharmacists. Hurley Medical Center introduced testimony that both assignments required the same amount of physical exertion.

After learning her shift assignment on the 14th, Ms. Eagle spoke with her supervisor and requested that her assignment be changed or she would leave. Ms. Eagle stated that she could not work the dispensing job because she could never get lunch coverage. The supervisor immediately went out into the pharmacy and arranged lunch coverage for Ms. Eagle. However, Ms. Eagle then took a call from her union president and informed the director that she “cannot do this.” Ms. Eagle claims that she told her supervisor she was suffering from fatigue, could not handle the dispensing job for another consecutive day, and would take FMLA leave and return to work the next day.

Following her union president’s advice, Ms. Eagle went to the Employee Health Office (EHO) to speak to a nurse. The nurse testified that Ms. Eagle made no complaints regarding how she was feeling but stated she wanted to go home on FMLA and was upset and claimed the assignment was something she could not do due to her lupus. On her leave form, Ms. Eagle noted that she was going home ill, and did not mark “yes” next to the Requesting FMLA Leave question. Hurley Medical Center investigated the incident and concluded Ms. Eagle’s decision to leave was in direct protest of her assignment, her need to maintain the IVAD assignment was not validated through the EHO, and that she left on her own accord. Notably, the investigation did not include speaking with Ms. Eagle.

On August 9, 2011, Ms. Eagle was issued a suspension pending termination, and on September 1, 2011, she was terminated for gross misconduct related to fraudulently using FMLA leave.

In response, Ms. Eagle filed a discrimination claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC concluded Hurley Medical Center violated plaintiff’s rights under the ADA because it did not accommodate her and discharged her because of her disability. Ms. Eagle thereupon filed suit alleging, in part, violation of the FMLA and ADA,¹ and Hurley Medical Center moved for summary judgment.

In support of its motion as to the FMLA claim, Hurley Medical Center argued Ms. Eagle failed to introduce evidence that she gave notice of her intention to take leave or that it denied her rights under the FMLA. The court disagreed, observing Ms. Eagle testified she had told the pharmacy director about her disability symptoms and that she would take FMLA in order to come to work on July 15. The court concluded it was undisputed Ms. Eagle was terminated for taking leave on July 14, and a genuine issue of fact remained as to whether Ms. Eagle’s request for leave was under the FMLA and whether the leave itself was a factor in the decision to terminate her.

With respect to the ADA claim, Ms. Eagle alleged she asked Hurley Medical Center to accommodate her by placing her in a job that did not require her to walk throughout the medical center on rounds, and that this accommodation was denied. Hurley Medical Center contended the request was not one her supervisor could understand as a request for reasonable accommodation because both job assignments required her do rounds, and activity involving walking through the medical center. Hurley Medical Center also reasoned if Ms. Eagle was suffering from fatigue, a reasonable accommodation request would have been to ask for another pharmacy technician to do the rounds. Lastly, the request was not one that would have put Hurley Medical Center on notice that it was an accommodation due to her lupus because her accommodation for lupus was limited to a work hour restriction. The court determined there was a genuine issue of fact regarding whether Ms. Eagle requested a reasonable accommodation and whether Hurley Medical Center failed to engage in good faith communication regarding the request for accommodation, which precluded summary judgment.

The Eagle decision is a reminder that courts often look beyond the four corners of accommodation request documentation. Employers must be able to demonstrate attempts at meaningful communication with the employee to fully understand the employee’s request for accommodation. This is particularly important in the healthcare industry, where workplace illnesses and injuries are commonplace.