By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis:  A federal district court in Arkansas recently denied an employer’s motion for summary judgment on two EEOC-initiated ADA claims – in EEOC v. Crain Automotive Holdings LLC, No. 4:17-CV-627, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 62513 (E.D. Ark. Apr. 11, 2019) –  for failure to provide a reasonable accommodation and discharge based on disability, following a supervisor’s comments to an employee that “it was not working out” and to take care of herself after the employee’s hospitalization.  Id. at *1. For employers and management personnel, this ruling illustrates how courts might find seemingly innocuous comments to be direct evidence of discrimination, thus raising the stakes in ADA litigation initiated by the EEOC.

Case Background

In EEOC v. Crain Automotive Holdings LLC, an employee of Crain who suffered from anxiety, depression, and panic attacks began experiencing chest pains and went to the emergency room, fearing she was having a heart attack.  Id.  After two days of treatment, she ultimately reported back to work.  Upon her return, she began experiencing a panic attack and left work, after she emailed her supervisor.  When she returned to work a few days later, she met with two supervisors and was terminated.  According to the employee, the supervisors told her that “it was not working out” due to her health problems and that she needed to take care of herself.  Id.

The EEOC brought a lawsuit on behalf of the employee alleging that Crain violated the Americans With Disabilities Act, as amended by the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 (“ADA”) because it (1) failed to provide a reasonable accommodation for the employee, and (2) that it discharged her because of her disabilities.

Crain moved for summary judgment on both of the EEOC’s claims, arguing that: (i) the employee was not disabled under the ADA; (ii) even if the employee was disabled, she could not have been fired because of her disability since Crain did not know about it; and (iii) the EEOC had no direct evidence of discrimination, and under the McDonnell-Douglas framework, the disability claim could not survive.

The Court’s Decision

The Court denied Crain’s motion for summary judgment on both of the EEOC’s claims. First, the Court rejected Crain’s argument that the employee was not disabled within meaning of the ADA, noting that she had been diagnosed with anxiety, depression, and panic attacks. Id. at *4-5. Crain supported its position by arguing that she had been able to perform other demanding activities, such as handling her parents’ estates, and further noted that she did not have constant panic attacks. The Court rejected Crain’s position, holding that a reasonable jury could find that the employee was disabled within the meaning of the ADA based on her testimony regarding the difficulty caused by her impairments. Id. at *6.

Crain further argued that even if the employee was disabled, she could not have been fired because of her disability since Crain did not know about it. Id. at *6-7. In response, the EEOC presented the following evidence: on Tuesday, the employee told her supervisor she had experienced chest pains the day before; on Wednesday, the employee told her supervisor she had anxiety, depression, and had suffered a panic attack; on Friday, the employee emailed her supervisor before leaving work, saying “I can’t do this” because she was “still hurting too bad,” and further, she emailed another supervisor explaining that she had had a heart catheterization, which was supported by a doctor’s note attached to that email. Id. at *7. The Court held that taking all these facts as true, a reasonable jury could infer that at the time the employee was fired the following week, Crain knew about her anxiety, depression, and panic attacks.

Finally, Crain argued that the EEOC had no direct evidence of discrimination, and under the McDonnell-Douglas framework, the disability claim could not survive. The Court noted that when the employee met with two supervisors in order to discuss why she had left work early the previous Friday, she was terminated. The employee testified that at this meeting, a supervisor told her that “due to [her] health, it wasn’t going to work out and [she] should take time for [her]self.” Id. at *8. The Court held that this comment was direct evidence of discrimination, as opposed to falling within the categories of “stray remarks in the workplace, statements by non-decision-makers, and statements by decisionmakers unrelated to the decisional process,” which would have precluded the comments from being considered direct evidence of discrimination. Id. at *9 (citation omitted). The Court further held there was no reason to suspect that the suggestion that the employee should take care of her health or take time for herself was made “with the intent of attempting to preserve and promote” her, as she was fired in the same conversation. Id. Accordingly, the Court denied Crain’s motion for summary judgment as to the discriminatory discharge claim.

Turning the EEOC’s failure to accommodate claim, the Court noted that the employee emailed a doctor’s note to a supervisor, and that the doctor’s note stated that she needed three weeks off work. The Court held that because Crain did not follow up whatsoever on the recommendation contained in the doctor’s letter before firing the employee, the EEOC generated a genuine dispute of fact on whether the employee requested an accommodation  Accordingly, the Court denied Crain’s motion for summary judgment as to the failure to accommodate claim.

Implications For Employers

This ruling serves as cautionary tale for employers regarding both the handling of employee health issues and comments made by supervisory personnel during terminations. In instances where employees present doctors’ notes, as was the case here, employers must be diligent to review those and properly provide any necessary accommodations.

Further, although the comments made during this employee’s termination – “it wasn’t going to work out” and “[she] should take time for [her]self” may seem innocent in nature – the Court here analyzed those comments in the context of the employee’s condition and recent attendance history, and found that such remarks constituted direct evidence of discrimination. Id. at *8-9.  Employers should thus be prudent to educate supervisors and other relevant personnel about carefully selecting their words during termination and disciplinary situations, especially in instances involving health issues.

Readers can also find this post on our EEOC Countdown blog here.