Employee fired while on leave, not allowed to telecommute, advances FMLA and ADA claims

An employer who fired a marketing employee with longstanding health conditions while she was on extended FMLA leave, purportedly because of prior poor performance and her inability to work in the office, will face trial on a myriad of claims. Denying its motion for summary judgment, a federal court in Missouri found triable issues existed as to whether the employee was denied FMLA leave and fired for exercising her FMLA rights, whether being at the office was an essential function of her job that she could not perform due to her disability, and whether telecommuting would have been a reasonable accommodation.

Deteriorating health.

The market analyst suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, emphysema, and a paralyzed right diaphragm. She was hospitalized in 2013 and missed five weeks of work. She also missed several days of work in late 2014 due to her medical condition. In January 2015, her toes turned black, she had difficulty breathing and standing, and she developed bronchitis and pneumonia.

Extended FMLA leave.

In early February, she requested and was granted extended FMLA leave due to her serious medical condition. However, on March 26, while still out on FMLA leave, she received a letter informing her that she had been terminated, effective March 14. Her employer claimed she was terminated due to poor performance and inability to come into the office, and had previously placed her on a performance improvement plan.
She brought the instant action asserting that her employer violated the FMLA by refusing to provide her leave and retaliating against her for asserting her FMLA rights. She also claimed that it discriminated against her based on her disability and failed to provide her with a reasonable accommodation, in violation of the ADA and Missouri’s anti-bias. Finally, she brought claims for unpaid overtime under the FLSA and Missouri’s wage law.

Reason for firing questionable.

Triable issues precluded summary judgment on the employee’s FMLA interference claim. Notably, even though it claimed it fired her solely for performance-based reasons, her termination occurred before the expiration of her performance improvement plan. Moreover, although the employer argued that it made the decision to discharge her before she invoked her FMLA leave, the record suggested that she requested the leave prior to the decision. And while she may not have specifically sought FMLA leave for her January absences, a jury could conclude that she provided enough information for the employer to believe it constituted FMLA leave.
The same analysis applied to her FMLA retaliation claim. The timing of the termination decision in relation to her exercise of her FMLA rights remained a factual question that could not be determined on summary judgment. Indeed, she pointed to “various indications that could support her claim that she was discharged because of the exercise of FMLA rights. While it was unclear whether she proved such facts, she presented sufficient evidence to proceed to trial.

Telecommuting as reasonable accommodation?

The employee’s disability bias and failure-to-accommodate claims also advanced to trial. The employer argued that it legitimately terminated her since she could not perform the essential function of being able to work in the office. In response, she claimed that it could have allowed her to telecommute as a reasonable accommodation, pointing out that she was previously allowed to do so. However, the employer claimed this was not a reasonable request since employees must be physically present.
Whether the employer’s position on telecommuting was grounded in legitimate business rationale remained a question of fact. Specifically, a jury would need to decide whether her presence at the office was an “essential job function” and whether telecommuting could serve as a “reasonable accommodation” in light of her previous telecommuting. The court also found that her application for disability benefits was not dispositive at this point.

Overtime claims.

Finally, summary judgment was also denied on her overtime claims since it was questionable whether her position fell under the FLSA’s administrative exemption. Specifically, whether her job entailed the requisite elements of discretion and independent judgment remained a matter to be determined at trial.

SOURCE: Teetor v. Rock-Tenn Services, Inc., (E.D. Mo.), No. 4:15-cv-01002-HEA, October 2, 2017.
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