A recent court decision left employers weary of implementing disability-related policies and absence management initiatives in the workplace. Earlier this month, the Eastern District of Arkansas interpreted the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") to include panic attacks as a covered disability under the Act. (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Crain Automotive Holdings, LLC, No. 17-cv-00627 (E.D. Ark. April 11, 2019)). This decision has resulted in some significant concern on the part of employers trying to accommodate their employees while minimizing disruption to business operations as a result of absences and other leaves.
Factual Background: Plaintiff Judith Vaughan suffers from anxiety, depression, and panic attacks. While working for Crain Automotive Holdings, LLC, Vaughan began experiencing chest pains. Fearing she was having a heart attack, she immediately went to the emergency room. Following two days of treatment, Vaughan learned her chest pain had actually been the result of a panic attack. The plaintiff was released back to work, but subsequently began to experience symptoms of another panic attack. She left work once again after apprising her supervisor via email.
Prior to these two incidents, no one at Crain was aware that Vaughan suffered from anxiety, depression, and panic attacks. When Vaughan returned to work after her second panic attack, she attended a meeting with two supervisors, at which time she was apprised she was terminated. According to Vaughan, she was told at this meeting that “it was not working out” due to her health problems, and that she needed to take care of herself.
Decision: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ultimately brought an action against Crain asserting that the company had violated the ADA. The complaint alleged that Crain (1) failed to provide a reasonable accommodation for Vaughan and (2) discharged her because of her disabilities.
Crain consequently moved for summary judgment on several grounds. First, Crain disputed that Vaughan was disabled within the meaning of the ADA. While it was undisputed that Vaughan suffered from anxiety, depression, and panic attacks, Crain argued that Vaughan was, in fact, able to perform other demanding activities, such as handling her parents’ estates. Crain also noted that Vaughan did not constantly suffer from panic attacks such that she could not work; indeed, Vaughan admitted that she had tried to work through a panic attack that had occurred at work. However, the court found that Vaughan’s anxiety, depression and panic attacks interfered with her thinking, breathing and communicating, which are considered major life activities as defined by the ADA.
Second, Crain argued that that even if Vaughan was disabled, she could not have been fired because of her disability, as Crain was unaware of Vaughan’s medical condition at the time of termination. The court found this argument similarly unavailing since Vaughan testified that her supervisors informed her during her termination meeting that “it was not working out” due to her health problems, and that she needed to take care of herself.
Finally, Crain disputed Vaughan’s failure to accommodate claim on the basis that Vaughan never requested an accommodation. Vaughan claims that she emailed a doctor’s note recommending three weeks off of work to one of her supervisors; however, her supervisor denied receipt of that note. In denying Crain’s dispositive motion, the court determined that a genuine issue of fact existed on this issue and thus held it appropriate to submit the question to a jury.
Implications: Ignoring for a moment the possibility that Crain may not have had knowledge of Vaughan’s medical condition, this case serves as a warning that in deciding whether to enforce absence management initiatives, no employer should blindly assume that any employee’s medical conditions are not covered disabilities under the law.
This case also serves as a cautionary tale for employers and Human Resources professionals regarding the messaging and comments made during critical times of an employee’s employment. Even assuming Crain’s assertion that no comments were made regarding Vaughn’s disability during her termination meeting, the court found that the alleged, rather innocuous statements analyzed in connection with the timing of the employee’s panic attack incidents, constituted evidence of discrimination. Continuing education by employers about appropriate verbiage when dealing with potential disability-related issues can thus prove incredibly valuable in the long-run in avoiding future disability-related claims.