An attorney with Memphis-based Glankler Brown recently won a contested employee discrimination case for corporate cell phone giant AT&T.
The case arose when a local call center employee sued AT&T Mobility Services LLC in March 2015 after the company fired her the previous summer. She allegedly could not provide sufficient information from her health care provider about needing additional leave due to a mental health impairment.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers are expected to accommodate the needs of employees with qualifying disabilities, such as psychiatric disabilities. However, when the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals took up the Williams v. AT&T Mobility Services LLC case in January, the court sided with AT&T.
In 2008, Congress passed amendments to the ADA to include more conditions and injuries. The amendments essentially made it easier for a person’s condition to fall within the act’s definition of disability. It also expanded the obligation for employers to accommodate those conditions. Since the law was relatively new, nearly all cases were trending in favor of the expansion concept.
“As a defense attorney, we were becoming concerned that a business couldn’t win an ADA case,” said Charles W. Hill, an attorney with Glankler Brown, who served along with Glankler associate Meghan K. McMahon as outside counsel for AT&T in the case.
Hill believes the court’s decision in Williams v. AT&T flips the switch back to a balance in favor of common sense and reminds everyone that, not withstanding the broad definition of disability under ADA, not every disability can be accommodated — and that’s OK.
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that regular attendance was an essential function for a call center employee, and that accommodations proposed by the employee and her doctor — a flexible start time and 10-minute breaks every two hours — would not help the employee’s unpredictable anxiety attacks.
“With certain allowances under the [Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)], the notion that AT&T couldn’t accommodate [the employee] starting an hour later rings hollow to me,” said the plaintiff’s attorney, Memphian Steve Wilson of the Steve Wilson Firm, who also worked with attorney/Memphian Matt Gulotta of the Gulotta Firm.
Under FMLA, the call center employee would have been able to start an hour later, but she had already taken all her FMLA leave.
Wilson also did not agree with the court’s ruling that AT&T could not accommodate breaks due to anxiety attacks because they are unpredictable by nature.
“Other employees in [the employee’s] position were able to get up and take a bathroom break,” Wilson said. “She should be able to take a few minutes to collect herself when she feels a panic attack is coming.”
Wilson said he is obviously disappointed by the outcome of the case but would not consider it to be a precedent-setting case.
“Based on the Sixth Circuit’s 2015 ruling in EEOC v. Ford Motor Co., the Court continues to hold that, for the majority of jobs, especially interactive in nature, attendance is an ‘essential function’ that employees must be able to perform. However, when assessing the facts of each case, there may still be exceptions,” Wilson said.
The losing side often pays the court costs incurred by the winning side, but in this instance the plaintiff’s lawyers were able to successfully argue she should pay nothing unless AT&T could show her claim was frivolous.
The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee sided with the plaintiff and did not order her to reimburse the prevailing party.
“If this becomes the accepted practice here, it would protect similar disabled persons in the future without potentially discouraging them from pursuing their legal rights under the ADA,” Wilson said.
As for employers, Hill advises, when evaluating whether a request is reasonable, take into account how the employee’s coworkers would be affected.
“In this case, attendance was a valid job requirement — if you aren’t there, someone else has to take on your load,” Hill said.
If in-person attendance is a requirement of a job, Hill encourages employers to state that policy in a job description, and put in an attendance policy that measures and records instances when an employee is late, leaves early or doesn’t show up when expected to. With this case, AT&T had engaged in communications with the employee and the employee’s medical provider.
“Not every disability can be accommodated — that’s what struck me about the case: its common sense approach. If you’re an employer and being approached with an accommodation, it has to solve the problem,” Hill said.