Under the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act, an employee who wishes to seek an accommodation of the restrictions imposed by their disability must bring their disability to the attention of the employer, if it is non-obvious. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, in Walz v. Ameriprise Financial, Inc., upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit because the plaintiff had not informed her employer of either her disability or that an accommodation was necessary to perform the essential functions of her job.
The plaintiff’s job required people, teamwork, communication and time management skills. It also required that she be “good at relationships.” However, she suffered from bipolar affective disorder, which apparently caused her to interrupt meetings, disturb co-workers and disrespect her supervisor. After several incidents, her supervisor issued a formal behavioral warning. The plaintiff then applied for FMLA leave, which was granted by the company’s third-party administrator. Upon her return to work, plaintiff gave her supervisor a note from a doctor at a mental health service which cleared her to return to work for 40 hours a week and stated that she had been stabilized on her medication. However, her erratic and disruptive behavior returned. She was terminated because of her repeated misconduct.
Plaintiff did not ever inform her employer of the nature of her disorder. Nor did she request any accommodation.
To establish her claim of disability discrimination, the Court noted that she must establish that she was a “qualified disabled person” within the meaning of the ADA. The first prong of the test to determine whether she was qualified is whether she possessed the requisite skills, education, certification and experience. She did. The second part of the test was whether the plaintiff could, despite her impairments, perform the essential functions of the job either with or without reasonable accommodation. Upon a review of the record, the Court concluded that plaintiff could not make a sufficient showing that she was able to perform the essential functions of the position without an accommodation.
However, it noted that she also may be qualified under the ADA if a reasonable accommodation would have allowed her to perform the essential functions of her position. However, plaintiff had failed to inform her employer of her disability or even request an accommodation. Thus, it was concluded that the employer had no duty to accommodate her. The plaintiff then argued that the note from a doctor with the mental health service which contained a reference to medication stabilizing her condition was sufficient to put the employer on notice of plaintiff’s disorder. While her supervisor did acknowledge that he “guessed” that plaintiff had been treated for a mental health issue, those facts, even if they established the plaintiff suffered from bipolar disorder, did not specifically identify any resulting limitations. Because plaintiff failed to disclose her non-obvious disability and related limitations, she did not sufficiently establish that she could perform the essential functions of her job with reasonable accommodation.
The takeaway from the Walz decision is that while there may be certain behaviors and conditions which would put an employer on notice of the existence of an employee’s disability, where the disability is a psychological one, an employee’s erratic behavior, by itself, may not impose a duty upon the employer to consider accommodation. Other decisions involving the ADA have concluded that an employer need not be a “mind reader” and, without appropriate notification by an employee, it need not leap to the conclusion that the employee needs an accommodation and then pursue the interactive process to determination whether an accommodation was available.