Legal Eagle Eye Newsletter for the Nursing Profession (6)6 Jun 98

Quick Summary: The nursing director's stress reaction when she anticipated going to work and interacting with individuals in upper management was not a legal disability as it only restricted her ability to do one particular job. She did not have a legal disability.

   The Americans With Disabilities Act says that a disability is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.

According to the Americans With Disabilities Act, a person is not substantially limited in the major life activity of working unless the person is significantly restricted in the ability to perform either a class of jobs or a broad range of jobs within various classes.

   Federal regulations interpret the term "impairment" to mean any physiological disorder or condition affecting one or more bodily systems, e.g. neurological, musculoskeletal, special sense organs, respiratory, speech, cardiovascular, reproductive, digestive, genito-urinary, hemic, lymphatic, skin and endocrine. UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT, GEORGIA, 1998.

   The director of nursing had the responsibility as clinical coordinator to supervise the nursing staff in her employer’s nursing homes. She was involved as well with marketing and public relations efforts aimed at the residents of retirement centers.

   Before returning from a medical leave for back surgery, the nursing director requested a two-week leave extension for a "stress-related mental condition" which the nursing director in asking for the leave extension attributed to "work related stress." This request was granted.

   When the two weeks were up the nursing director requested an additional four weeks off for stress related to her job. This request was denied and she was fired. She sued for disability discrimination, claiming that her termination violated the Americans With Disabilities Act.

   The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia threw out the suit. There were two main points in court’s detailed analysis. The nursing director’s stress reaction to her job was not a disability as defined by the Americans With Disabilities Act. And, as she was unable to show up and do her job, due to stress, she was not qualified for her position, even if she had a disability.

   To have a disability requires an impairment that restricts a major life activity. Working in general is a major life activity. Being able to work in a specific position for a specific employer is not a major life activity. The stress from a particular job is not a disability, according to the court.

   Even if a person has a disability, the person must be able to perform the essential functions of the job to qualify for protection from discrimination under the Americans With Disabilities Act. It may seem obvious, but the courts have had to establish by judicial precedent that the most essential function of any job is attendance at work. An employee who is absent, the court noted, can perform no functions of a job, essential or non-essential.

   The court also noted that even if the nursing director was a person with a disability and was qualified for her position despite her disability, she was not entitled to reasonable accommodation.

   It was not clear what the employer could have done in this case to accommodate this employee’s problems with stress, allegedly related to an inability to tolerate the management style of executives higher up on the corporate ladder.

   Since the issue was stress arising from this employee’s particular job circumstances, the court said it was difficult to imagine how an additional four weeks leave of absence on top of two weeks already granted would have enabled the nursing director to perform the essential functions of her job, as she would have undergone her stress reaction as soon as she got back on the job.

   Regardless, the law says that an employee who wants accommodation must come forward and inform the employer that the employee has a specific disability and the steps the employee would like to see taken by way of reasonable accommodation, and the employee must prove the accommodation is reasonable.

   According to the court, by law it is not the employer’s responsibility to investigate and find out whether an employee needs reasonable accommodation. An employee has no right to sit back and wait until after being fired to bring up the issue of failure to provide reasonable accommodation.

   An employer does not get into a bind when the employer tries to work with an employee by offering an accommodation beyond what is required by law, the court ruled. This employer had no obligation in the first place to give the nursing director two weeks off for stress. The court ruled explicitly that having made an accommodation in the past, in and of itself, imposes no legal duty on an employer to make the same accommodation in the future. Paleologos v. Rehab Consultants, Inc., 990 F. Supp. 1460 (N.D. Ga., 1998).