Top Tip: Employers – Be Accurate with Your Explanations and Your Paperwork!

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A recent case from a Maryland federal court offers a simple but important lesson to employers – to be careful and accurate with regard to both explanations and paperwork for employment actions.

In Meyer v. DynCorp Int’l, LLC, the employee, who was an aircraft mechanic, was on an extended medical leave. Three days before his leave was scheduled to end, he met with a Human Resources representative to request reasonable accommodations for his return to work. His doctor released him to work, but he was not allowed to lift more than 20 pounds or perform overhead work for a period of one month, after which the restrictions would be lifted. The employee also told his managers of these restrictions, and they told him they did not think it would be a problem, as the employee was rarely required to do these things. Nonetheless, when he met with HR again on the date of his return, he was told that no accommodations could be provided and his employment was terminated. He then filed suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the employer moved to have the case dismissed.

The Maryland federal court refused to dismiss the case, finding significant concerns about the underlying facts. Although the employer argued that overhead work and lifting more than 20 pounds were essential functions, the court observed that, in essence, the employer was arguing that any task normally done by an aircraft mechanic was “definitionally” essential – which is not the standard. Here, the mechanic had offered evidence that he rarely performed those tasks, that many others were available to assist, and that his managers thought he could perform the job even with those limitations.

The employer also argued that no reasonable accommodation was available. But as the court noted, the mechanic had identified several possible accommodations that could be reasonable – a finite period of leave (one month until the restrictions were lifted), a transfer to another position, or job restructuring to move marginal functions (lifting and overhead work) to another employee. All of these were possible accommodations that would require further exploration to determine if these were, in fact, reasonable.

The court also found the employer’s actions in the termination itself to be problematic. The employer said that it terminated the employee because he exhausted his 26 weeks of leave and could not return to full duty (and whether that requirement itself was appropriate is an issue). But the effective date on his Exit Interview form was the same day that he first spoke to HR about his request for accommodations – three days before the end of his leave.

So, there are several lessons that can be drawn from this case:

  • Be thoughtful about what functions are actually essential for a job. Simply because the function is performed as part of the job does not automatically mean that it is essential.
  • Make sure to engage in the interactive discussion regarding possible accommodations.
  • Be open to considering various accommodations – even ones that are not requested by the employee.
  • Do not require an employee to be “100%” or “fully” healed in order to return.
  • Make sure the paperwork aligns with the explanation (and don’t terminate an employee before the end of their leave!).