Employees with Disabilities Can Be Held to Performance Standards
But documentation is key, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit noted in a recent case.
In Vinh v. Express Scripts Services Co., an employee had performance issues that were documented in his annual reviews and, when a new manager took over, in her notes of her weekly meetings with the employee. In the meantime, the employee began experiencing severe neck pain and was subsequently diagnosed with cervical dystonia, which required him to take intermittent leave. Because of his performance issues, he was told that he would be placed on a performance improvement plan (PIP), but he began an extended leave before that occurred. When he returned from leave, he was then placed on the PIP (after the manager confirmed that there would be no impact on his work restrictions) and was ultimately terminated when his performance did not improve sufficiently. He then sued, alleging, among other things, that he was discriminated against because of his disability.
The Eighth Circuit found that the employer had established a legitimate reason for the employee’s termination: his history of deficient performance and failure to satisfactorily complete the PIP. There was substantial evidence of his poor performance predating his disability, including his annual reviews and his low rating compared to his peers. Moreover, the PIP had been discussed with him prior to his leave, and his manager had confirmed that the PIP did not conflict with his work restrictions. As the Eighth Circuit noted, “[f]ederal courts do not sit as a super-personnel department that reexamines an entity’s business decisions…. Rather, our inquiry is limited to whether the employer gave an honest explanation of its behavior.”
So, while employers must provide reasonable accommodations to enable employees with disabilities to perform their essential job functions, it can hold employees accountable for meeting the expected standard of performance for those functions. And if the employee cannot meet those standards, which should be documented, employers may follow their normal process for performance management – including PIPs and termination, as appropriate.