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Now We Have Seen It All: Bouncing Stress Balls and an ADA Claim

A win for the good guys (sort of)!  The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, the federal appellate court for Tennessee, Ohio, Michigan, and Kentucky, recently held an employee who claims he or she cannot perform the major life activity of working has to do more than prove a substantial limitation in a single specific job to be disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).   

In Tinsley v. Caterpillar Financial Services Corp., the plaintiff was a long-time employee who in 2015 complained her work responsibilities were causing her to be stressed beyond what she could physically handle.  Her supervisor agreed to take some tasks off the employee’s plate and the employee took FMLA for a few days. 

A little over two months later, the employee’s supervisor expressed concern regarding her performance.  A week after this discussion, the employee’s supervisor gave her a formal mid-year review stating she did not meet performance expectations. A few weeks later the company put the plaintiff on a performance improvement plan. 

After she received the performance improvement plan, the employee wrote to HR and explained she was experiencing a hostile work environment because her co-workers were bouncing stress balls off the ground.  She also wrote a second time to HR and said she was concerned her supervisor was treating her differently following her complaint about the stress balls. 

After these e-mails, she took medical leave for over a month upon her doctor’s advice.  At the conclusion of her leave, her doctor released her to function at full capacity but recommended she be placed under a new supervisor so as not to exacerbate her post-traumatic stress disorder.  In lieu of giving her a new supervisor, the Company gave the employee an additional eight weeks of FMLA.  All told, she received 18 weeks of FMLA. 

Following this 18 weeks of leave, the employee requested additional leave which the Company denied.  The employee told the Company it gave her no choice and requested they process her retirement, which it did.

The employee brought suit against the Company alleging it did not provide reasonable accommodations under the ADA and retaliated against her for making an FMLA claim.

As for the ADA claim, the Court found the employee was not disabled under the ADA or even the relaxed standard under the ADAAA because her diagnosis did not limit her ability to work a broad class of jobs, just her ability to work with her supervisor.

For employers, this holding is great news! We see time and time again complaints from employees who simply do not like their manager.  This case provides hope for employers that it is not required to accommodate an employee by transferring them to another department if their only problem is they do not want to work with their manager. 

Caterpillar, however, did not come out completely unscathed.  The Sixth Circuit remanded the employee’s retaliation claim.  It held she could make a prima facie case of retaliation because two months after she took FMLA she was given a negative performance review and placed on PIP. No news yet on how the Company will fare on this claim. 

Brody and Associates regularly provides counsel on the ADA, as well as other civil rights issues and employment laws in general.  If we can be of assistance in this area, please contact us at info@brodyandassociates.com or 203.454.0560. 

Additionally, if this article generated any additional questions for you, please contact us at info@brodyandassociates.com.  We may address your question in a future blog post.