by Martin J. Regimbal
Even though the federal trial court in Aberdeen rejected a terminated employee’s claims of wrongful termination and interference under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), it accepted her self-diagnosis of a disability. This case is worth another look.
“Meghan” began working as a teller at Renasant Bank in July 1996. Her career with Renasant continued for approximately 19 years, during which she held various positions, the last being senior lending assistant under “Hector”, the branch manager at the time.
Meghan has suffered from occasional migraine headaches since she was 18 years old. According to her, the migraines are so debilitating that she cannot concentrate or tolerate light, and the only remedy is to sleep off the headache in a dark room.
In 2014, Meghan took approximately 5 weeks of sick leave, most of it because she was suffering from migraines. However, she couldn’t identify which days she missed because of migraines and which days she took off for other reasons. Her medical records also were devoid of any mention of a diagnosis or treatment of migraines.
In September 2014, Hector, along with another Renasant employee, met with Meghan to discuss her performance. At the meeting, Hector noted Meghan’s many absences and inquired if there was anything he or Renasant could do to help. Meghan had no response except to state that she was actually able to work on many of the days she had missed, but she hadn’t come in because she assumed another employee could do her work.
In February 2015, Meghan was terminated for taking out a loan in her sister’s name. She had been struggling financially since December 2013, and her house had gone into foreclosure. She claimed her sister offered to take out a loan in her name to help her make the delinquent mortgage payments. Meghan secured the loan in her sister’s name, and Hector approved it without knowing its purpose. She then signed her sister’s name to all the loan documents and to the loan check itself.
In January 2015, the loan showed up on a past-due report that Hector reviewed. When he brought it to Meghan’s attention, she stated that she would inform her sister. She then took funds out of her personal account and paid the loan off in full. Hector later reviewed the loan documents and, believing they weren’t actually signed by Meghan’s sister, turned them over to Renasant’s HR department.
The HR department conducted an investigation and determined that Meghan had signed the documents without obtaining authorization from the bank and had directly benefited from the loan proceeds. Because her actions violated company policy, Renasant terminated her employment. Claiming that Renasant terminated her because of her migraine headaches, she filed suit under the ADA and the FMLA.
Renasant argued that Meghan couldn’t establish a claim for wrongful termination under the ADA because she failed to provide a record of a diagnosis or treatment for migraine headaches in her medical records. The court noted that Renasant was factually correct; however, the bank failed to cite any authority for the proposition that such evidence is necessary to demonstrate the existence of a disability. Conversely, Meghan and her husband, a former nurse practitioner, testified in their depositions that she suffered from migraines so debilitating that she couldn’t function, concentrate, or tolerate light. As a result, the court found, she had sufficiently demonstrated that she suffers from a disability.
However, the court held that Meghan wasn’t a qualified individual with a disability because she was completely unable to work when she had a migraine. The court noted, and Meghan conceded, that attendance was an essential function of her position at the bank, and she was unable to go to work when she had a migraine.
Meghan maintained that Renasant shouldn’t require her to work when she had a migraine, but the court rejected that argument because allowing it would mean that Renasant had to excuse her from an essential function of her job, which the ADA doesn’t require. For that reason, the court dismissed her ADA claim.
Meghan also argued that Renasant interfered with her rights under the FMLA by not offering her protected leave for her migraines. Although the court accepted Meghan’s and her husband’s deposition testimony as sufficient to establish a disability under the ADA, it rejected their testimony as sufficient to demonstrate that she suffered from a serious health condition that entitled her to FMLA leave.
According to the court, nothing in the record suggested that Meghan’s migraines caused her to be incapacitated for more than 3 consecutive days. Moreover, she testified that she was able to function normally the day after a migraine. The court noted that although she claimed to have visited her husband’s former clinic on a few occasions, she hadn’t presented any evidence that she went to the clinic regularly enough during any given year to prove that she suffered from a chronic condition. For those reasons, the court held that her FMLA claim failed.
The court also held that Meghan’s FMLA claim failed because she hadn’t given Renasant sufficient notice of her need to take FMLA leave for her migraines. Specifically, the court noted that when Hector asked if there was anything that he or Renasant could do to help her, she didn’t respond with any suggestions and actually admitted to being able to come to work on most of the days she was absent.
The court also noted that on the days Meghan called in sick, she didn’t provide a specific reason for missing work. Vaguely stating that she wasn’t coming to work because she was sick, even if, as she claimed, “some days” she identified the reason as migraines, was insufficient to place Renasant on notice of her possible need for FMLA leave and trigger its obligations to inquire further. Justice v. Renasant Bank, 2016 WL 6635638 (N.D. Miss., Nov. 9, 2016).
The court’s opinion reiterates that an employee seeking FMLA leave, or later claiming that she should have been offered protected leave, must provide notice to her employer that amounts to more than generic statements that she is ill.
The court also made clear that an employee must demonstrate that she suffers from a serious health condition under the FMLA. However, the court’s finding with regard to the ADA claim is troubling because it suggests that an employee can maintain a disability claim based on self-diagnosis alone.
In accepting Meghan’s and her husband’s assertions about her migraines without any medical record of a diagnosis or treatment, the court seems to ignore the fact that Renasant would have been fully within its rights under the ADA to request medical documentation to excuse her absences or even to determine whether it could provide a reasonable accommodation. Absent such documentation, the bank was under no obligation to excuse her absences or offer her an accommodation, which is at odds with the court’s holding on this issue.
Although the court ultimately rejected Meghan’s ADA claim, employers should be careful when assessing the applicability of the ADA. Don’t rely exclusively on the absence of a medical diagnosis when you’re determining whether you have any obligations to an employee under the ADA.