ADA lawsuit win over work pressure
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ADA lawsuit win over work pressure

Americans with Disabilities Act: Don’t be fooled by workers who ‘look okay’

Is ADA compliance taken seriously at your company? Or do they figure, “The doc said Joe couldn’t lift anything over 20 pounds after his back injury last year, but he seems to be doing fine, so I’ll push him a little harder until we get through this crunch”?

If you hear that attitude anywhere in your company, you could easily end up getting sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act, as the employer in this case did. Failing to honor a previously made ADA accommodation can backfire, causing serious health problems for the employee in question and costing your company a whole lot of money in an ADA lawsuit.

Laura Blockel was a merchandising manager for a retail chain. Blockel, who’d been diagnosed with major depression, seizure disorder, bipolar disorder and other mental challenges, was qualified as an individual with a disability. Her American Disabilities Act accommodation: She was limited to a 40-hour workweek.

Model employee

The trouble began when a new manager, Lois Rainero, was assigned to Blockel’s department. Rainero knew nothing of her history. She seemed like a model employee, and in fact was – as long as she kept her schedule down to 40 hours. During her tenure, Blockel had received a number of promotions and excellent evaluations.

Rainero asked Blockel to put in some overtime hours. She refused, explaining that she had a doctor’s note saying that she was excused from overtime because of her health.

Not a team player

Begrudgingly, Rainero allowed Blockel to work 40 hours a week throughout the fall. But when the busy season approached, Rainero began pressuring her to put in more than 40 hours a week. In November Rainero drafted a new schedule for the department. The schedule called for her to work up to 49 hours a week through the holiday season. The day after the schedule was announced, she confronted Rainero about the increased hours.

Rainero told Blockel that she “wasn’t a team player” and that her career would be in jeopardy if she didn’t comply with the new schedule. The next day, Blockel left Rainero a note (to which Rainero never responded). In it, Blockel wrote that she loved her job and that she had a true disability, but that she would try to work the additional hours. Her condition deteriorated.

Blockel worked through the holiday season according to Rainero’s schedule – and her condition became worse. Finally, in January she was hospitalized. After her release, she took a medical leave. Near the end of her month-long leave, Rainero contacted Blockel and told her to report to the company for her review. Blockel explained that she was still sick, but Rainero insisted. Blockel attended the review, where she received low grades for her performance. This had never happened during her tenure with the organization. To her shock and disappointment, she was also told that a reduction in force was taking place, and that she was being terminated.

Blockel filed an ADA lawsuit in which she claimed disability discrimination – and she won. A jury awarded her $563,000.

The irony is that Rainero had been trained to avoid exactly such a mishap. Perhaps her training emphasized physical disabilities, and not mental ones. After all, many people don’t take mental illness as seriously as they do physical illness. And that’s a mistake.

Also, courtroom testimony suggested that Rainero feared that Blockel’s shorter hours might reflect badly on Rainero herself. It’s understandable how a manager could feel pressured to get one employee to put in her fair share of overtime. But without a doctor’s note releasing an employer from its ADA obligations, a manager must never say “no” to a standing ADA compliant accommodation.

Cite: Blockel v. J.C. Penney Co., U.S. Court of Appeals, 1st Circuit, No. 02-1927, 7/23/03.
HR 2.13

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