The Employer's Legal Resource: Recent Oklahoma Federal Court Reminds of Employer's Duty to Engage in Interactive Process and Temporary Conditions as Disabilities Under ADA
One recent Oklahoma federal court case reiterated that an employee may qualify as disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act, as amended ("ADA"), even though she is able to manage her condition with medication and may not have any current physical limitations. In Hancock v. Greystar Management Services, LP, the employee suffered a minor heart attack and her employment was terminated by her employer a few days later for purported job abandonment.
Donna Hancock was employed by Greystar, a property management company, as a leasing agent at one of its apartment complexes in Edmond, Oklahoma. In August 2014, Hancock was hospitalized for chest pain. On her way to the emergency room, Hancock contacted a coworker–who was not her supervisor–and informed her that she would be absent from work the following morning, August 6. Late in the evening on August 6, Hancock told her coworker that she had suffered a mild heart attack and that she had been admitted to the hospital and would be having tests done the morning of August 7. Hancock called her supervisor directly the following day, August 8. Hancock told her supervisor that she was being discharged from the hospital later that day with several medications and that she did not know when she would be able to return to work, but that she would need to remain off at least until she saw the doctor again on August 15. There was some factual dispute as to whether the Greystar supervisor had instructed Hancock on the phone call that she needed to keep management updated about her medical condition over the weekend and whether she was expected to be at work starting the following Monday, August 11. However, Hancock contends she believed that she only needed to update her supervisor after her August 15 appointment, when she would have more information. When Hancock did not report to work on August 11 and August 12, her supervisor called to inform her that Greystar was terminating her for job abandonment.
After her original diagnosis (and since the time of her termination), Hancock had been able to stabilize and successfully manage her heart condition by medication, regular monitoring of her blood pressure, and routine diet and exercise. Hancock's heart condition and its effects have not been entirely cured, though; her physician advised that she continued to suffer from coronary artery disease and that neglecting the above course of treatment would likely exacerbate her health problems and pose serious health risks.
Disability. The ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals with a disability, meaning "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities." Greystar claimed that Hancock's lack of pain or recent heart complications, as well as her ability to accomplish day-to-day tasks (through the successful medication and management of her prior condition) disqualifies her from being considered disabled under the ADA. The court rejected Greystar's argument. ADA disabilities may include those impairments that are temporary or episodic in nature, and the "ameliorative effects" of medication or other mitigating measures should not be considered in determining whether the employee suffers from a disability. As the court noted, "the definition of disability... includes those impairments which substantially limited a person at the time of the employer's action" even if the employee no longer has any such limitations or impairments. The fact that Hancock's "heart problems seem to be stable today–possibly because of medication and other preventative care measures–alone is not disqualifying for purposes of the ADA." Though her health has improved since her original diagnosis, her condition could reasonably have been considered a disability at the time of her termination.
Reasonable Accommodation. In order to recover under the ADA, Hancock must also prove that she was qualified, with or without a reasonable accommodation, to perform the essential functions of her job. Greystar argued that Hancock was unable to perform the essential functions of her job because she was absent. The court agreed, noting that regular "attendance is generally an essential function of any job" and an employer "is not required to relieve an employee of her obligation to attend work." Nevertheless, it is well established that a request for leave may be a reasonable accommodation that would "allow an employee sufficient time to recover from an injury or illness such that the employee can perform the essential functions of the job (i.e., attend work) in the future." Hancock would have been able to return to work after her August 15 doctor's appointment had she not been terminated.
Greystar argued that Hancock's phone conversation with her supervisor on August 8 did not constitute an actual request for an accommodation under the ADA, and that even if it was a request for accommodation, it was not a reasonable one because Hancock did not state the expected duration of her absence or impairment. The court noted, however, that Hancock's supervisor "could have followed up with Hancock to determine if her leave would actually be indefinite" but did not do so. Greystar's complete failure to engage in the interactive process required by the ADA precluded summary judgment. Hancock's request did not need to "formally invoke the magic words 'reasonable accommodation'" and the telephone call with her supervisor could reasonably be interpreted as requesting assistance for her disability in the form of additional time off.
Further, a jury could reasonably find it implausible that Greystar truly tried to accommodate Hancock's disability. The company claims Hancock violated company policy by failing to provide proper documentation for her medical condition, yet it never actually requested those documents from Hancock. Nor did it contact Hancock and follow up with her at any point in time for an update. In fact, Greystar never called Hancock on August 11 or August 12, despite claiming it expected her to be at work on those days, and Greystar knew Hancock had a doctor's appointment on August 15, but it terminated her before that date even though Hancock had sufficient accrued vacation and sick leave to cover her absence.