ADA & Disabilities, Leave Management, Policy, and Compliance

Disability Discrimination: Kentucky Court Reinstates Fired Worker’s Case

A federal court in Louisville, Kentucky recently changed its mind and reinstated claims that had previously been dismissed. The court found an employee’s complaint contained sufficient allegations of discrimination based on her disability and her use of medical leave to move forward toward trial.Cancer

Facts

“Allison” spent several years working for Chegg, Inc., as a warehouse manager. In late 2013, Allison was diagnosed with lung cancer. She applied for and was granted leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). She then underwent surgery and began chemotherapy.

During her leave, Allison expressed her concern to an HR employee about being terminated because she was taking FMLA leave. According to Allison, she was told that it was “very expensive for the Company to have employees with cancer.”

In January 2014, Allison returned to work under medical restrictions, but she wasn’t reinstated to her projects manager position, which had been filled by a less-senior employee with no health issues. Under her initial restrictions, Allison couldn’t walk, stand, or even stay awake for 8 hours. After she returned to work, she was allowed to use a golf cart when she needed to move around the plant.

In April 2014, CT scans showed that Allison might have additional cancer, prompting her to ask how much FMLA leave she had left. She wanted to prepare for the possibility of another surgery, which would require additional leave. She told her supervisor about her latest CT scan on April 18.

Allison was terminated on April 19. Chegg claimed she had hired a business operated by her husband to perform work for the company in violation of company policy. The company also alleged that she recommended it hire a temporary maintenance worker with a felony conviction in disregard of its hiring policies as well as its best interests. Allison asserted that the company knew about and approved of both actions in advance.

In December 2014, Allison filed a lawsuit that included allegations of disability discrimination and violations of the FMLA. The company asked the court to dismiss her lawsuit, arguing the allegations contained in her complaint were insufficient and didn’t assert any violation of any law. The court agreed and dismissed the lawsuit but allowed Allison to refile it in the future.

In November 2015, Allison filed a new complaint. The company again asked the court to dismiss her lawsuit, repeating its argument that the complaint didn’t allege sufficient facts to make a valid legal claim. This time, the court dismissed four out of the five claims.

A short time later, the courts reorganized their workloads, and Allison’s case wound up in front of a different court and a new judge. She asked the new court to “reconsider” the other court’s dismissal of her claims.

Court’s Ruling

Allison argued that she had adequately alleged her claims. She maintained that her allegations that her condition and treatments prevented her from standing, walking, and staying awake for 8 hours sufficiently described a protected disability. The company argued that those limitations were temporary and therefore weren’t protected under the disability discrimination laws. The court disagreed and reinstated Allison’s disability discrimination claims.

The court noted that at the time of her termination, Allison hadn’t completed her course of treatment and was still under the regular care of her physicians. Thus, it was simply too early to conclude that her condition failed to meet the statute’s definition of a covered disability.

The court concluded that Allison’s FMLA claims should also move forward. According to the court, her detailed allegations about her cancer and her treatment and the fact that she was granted FMLA leave to seek treatment after her first diagnosis were sufficient to establish that the company was covered by the FMLA and that Allison suffered from a “serious health condition.” Consequently, she was entitled to a trial on her allegation that she was fired because she took FMLA leave. Strulson v. Chegg, Inc., Case No. 3:15-cv-00828 (December 4, 2017).

Bottom Line

This case demonstrates how easily an employer can be forced to defend a lawsuit. Even after obtaining a dismissal of the first lawsuit, Chegg found itself having to defend its termination decision, despite its previous compliance with the FMLA and disability discrimination law.

Even though the employee conceded that the company granted her requests for leave and accommodated her restrictions when she returned to work, her allegation of a single offhand comment about the costs of cancer treatments, the fact that she was previously granted FMLA leave, and a dispute over the reasons for her termination kept the case alive. The employer will now be required to offer satisfactory proof of its legitimate reasons for firing her.

Jennifer Bame, contributor to Kentucky Employment Law Letter, can be reached at jbame@fbtlaw.com.