Articles | Cases

Legal Corner

Requiring employee's psychological evaluation violates ADA

An ambulance service company became concerned about the behavior of an employee after she became romantically involved with a co-worker. While transporting a patient during an emergency, she screamed at a male acquaintance over her cellphone. After her supervisor suggested that she see a psychologist to discuss issues related to her mental health, she did not return to work and filed an ADA suit, Emily Kroll v. White Lake Ambulance Authority. While a lower court granted summary judgment to the Michigan-based ambulance company, the appellate court found that the psychological evaluation constituted a medical exam and violated the ADA.

Obesity as impairment

Before the ADAAA passed, the EEOC took the position that severe or morbid obesity was an impairment but that obesity rarely is; however, the language that obesity is rarely an impairment was removed from the 2011 version of its Compliance Manual.

While it is not a definitive ruling, a recent Montana Supreme Court decision marks an unprecedented step towards recognition of obesity as a protected status under both state and federal antidiscrimination law. The case in question, BNSF Railway Co. v. Feit, was filed under the Montana Human Rights Act (MHRA) by an applicant who claimed he was rejected for a position at a railway company because of his obesity. While the department found in Feit's favor, BNSF then asked the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana to review the Commission's decision. The U.S. District Court sent a certified question to the Montana Supreme Court, asking it to determine whether obesity that is not the symptom of a physiological condition constitutes an impairment under the MHRA.

The Montana Supreme Court departed from earlier federal and other state decisions in finding that obesity, without any underlying physiological condition, could be considered a disability. The Court relied on an interpretive guidance from the EEOC, which states that weight is not an impairment when it is "within 'normal range' and [is] not the result of a physiological disorder." The Court interpreted this guidance to mean that if the individual's weight was outside the normal range, it constituted an impairment, regardless of whether there was a physiological disorder present.

Job does not have to be kept open indefinitely under FMLA

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) does not require an employer to hold an employee's job open indefinitely, according to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In this case, Henry v. United Bank, a commercial credit analyst was absent from work on various occasions due to her medical condition. Eventually, United Bank told Henry that her employment was terminated, since the Bank cannot continue to hold her position open indefinitely, and that she had already been given a full 12-week period of FMLA leave. She sued the bank for FMLA retaliation and brought disability claims under Massachusetts state law.

The Court noted the issue is whether the bank's proffered business decision for terminating Henry-- that it could not hold Henry's position open indefinitely -- is supported by evidence, or is merely a pretext for impermissible retaliation for taking FMLA leave. The Court concluded that testimony showed that United Bank's decision to terminate Henry was supported by legitimate, nonretaliatory business reasons. Henry's state-law disability claims failed for largely the same reasons as her FMLA claim.

Workers' Compensation
Workers' Comp is exclusive remedy for widow of worker killed on the job - Illinois

The widow of an Illinois restaurant worker who was murdered by a co-worker cannot sue her husband's employer for negligence because of exclusive remedy provisions for Illinois' Workers Compensation law. In its opinion, the state appellate court said that Illinois Workers' Comp law covers "accidental" injuries, which include injuries that are "unexpected and unforeseeable" on the part of the injured worker or the employer. While the widow argued that the shooting was not unexpected because the shooter was sent home after an argument with the victim and was to be fired, the court disagreed stating that the company did not believe the shooter posed a threat to employees.

No comp for house cleaner ruled independent contractor - New Jersey

In Lukasik v. Marguerite Holloway, a house cleaner who was injured the first day on the job was awarded Workers' Comp by a judge who considered Lukasik an employee based on the right of control test. He noted that respondents set the day for the work to be done, expected her to provide this service on a regular basis, and had the ability to direct her work even if they chose not to do so. The Appellate Division reversed holding that there was insufficient control of work activities to constitute an employer/employee relationship. The Court said that respondent did not control how petitioner did her cleaning, what supplies she used, or who did the cleaning.

Post-injury retirement is not 'abandonment of employment' - Ohio

AT&T Technologies Inc. vs. The Industrial Commission of Ohio upheld a hearing officer's ruling in the claim of an AT&T employee of 35 years who slipped and fell on an ice-covered dock. Prior to the accident, she had signed a form making her eligible for a buyout package that she was not obligated to accept. She accepted the buyout offer and left work at AT&T because of her shoulder injury and her inability to conduct her former job. While the DHO denied her claim, concluding that the claimant had abandoned the workforce, upon appeal it was found the claimant's buyout acceptance was not voluntary but was prompted by her injury.

Death benefits awarded to widow of professor who fell in restaurant - Pennsylvania

A professor sustained fractures in a fall at an off-campus restaurant during a lunch meeting with a doctoral student and died from a post-surgical infection associated with the treatment of a broken arm and shoulder. While the court acknowledged that injuries during off-premises lunches were ordinarily excluded from Workers' Compensation coverage, it was found that the professor was engaged in the furtherance of the business or affairs of the employer, since this was intended to be a three-hour meeting to discuss the student's upcoming defense of his dissertation.

Termination for misconduct derails benefit award - Pennsylvania

In BJ's Wholesale Club v. Workers' Compensation Appeal Board, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court held that a worker was not entitled to total disability benefits because her loss of earnings was a result of termination for misconduct and not her injury. After sustaining a foot and toe injury, the worker was accommodated with sedentary work. One night the worker drank alcohol and the following evening the manager requested she submit to an alcohol test, which revealed a blood alcohol level of .108. Consequently, she was fired for violation of the company's substance abuse policy. The court rejected the workers' argument that she was not acting intoxicated and that pain medication may have contributed to the elevated level.

Injured employee entitled to benefits for related mental health illness - Tennessee

The case of Stephen Vowell v. St. Thomas Hospital involved a surgical assistant who slipped on a wet floor while moving a patient, rendering him permanently and totally disabled. While a trial court ruled that he was also entitled to medical benefits for treatment of related severe depression, the employer appealed arguing the depression was not compensable because it did not arise from his employment, but was a result of his loss of employment. But the Supreme Court agreed with the trial court and said that it had "no difficulty in distinguishing Mr. Vowell's mental injury from one caused solely by a loss of employment."