In an opinion issued just yesterday, the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed an Indiana district court's decision granting summary judgment in a disability discrimination claim filed under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) but upheld the grant of summary judgment in the plaintiff's Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) claim.
The case involved a forming inspector/packer, Kimberly Spurling, at a packing company, C&M Fine Pack, Inc.. Spurling worked third shift since 2004 but in 2009 began experiencing a pattern of decreased consciousness and alertness, which netted her several write-ups. In February 2010, Spurling received a final warning/suspension when she left to use the bathroom and was found sleeping after she didn't return for 20 minutes.
Following her suspension Spurling met with the plant manager and three of her supervisors where she told them that her sleep problems were caused by medication she was taking, as prescribed. She also provided a note from her physician which stated, "Pt was recently asked to discontinue medicine related to her passing out--please excuse symptoms [at] work." However, Spurling had continued conscious problems while at work which led to another final warning/suspension two months later. In response, Spurling told the employer that the sleep issues might be related to a medical condition. The employer then provided Spurling with a letter regarding the ADA and documentation for her physician to complete.
Upon receiving this ADA paperwork, Spurling requested time off to determine the extent of her medical issues. The employer denied that this request happened and claimed Spurling was not eligible for FMLA leave because she was facing suspension pending termination of employment. One of Spurling's supervisors wanted to terminate her employment but it was decided they would await the ADA paperwork. Spurling's physician filled out the ADA paperwork and stated she had a mental or physical disability covered under the ADA. The employer did not find the physician's opinion as sufficient to establish she had a qualifying disability under the ADA and subsequently fired Spurling.
The ADA Claim
The district court granted C&M's summary judgment motion under the ADA by stating the employer could not be held accountable for discrimination under the ADA when both the employer and employee are unaware that a condition exists as on the ADA paperwork the physician stated that he was still examining Spurling and did not indicate a diagnosis. Thus, the district court believed discrimination could not have occurred since the termination occurred prior to having any knowledge of her condition.
The Court found that C&M terminated Spurling after they had knowledge she had a disability covered under the ADA from the ADA paperwork was submitted by Spurling's physician as she was not notified of her termination until after this paperwork was submitted and received by C&M. Furthermore, in terminating Spurling after they received the ADA paperwork, the Court held that C&M also failed to accommodate her disability by failing to engage in the interactive process and deciding to terminate instead.
The FMLA Claim
The 7th Circuit upheld summary judgment in the FMLA claim because the FMLA requires the employer to have knowledge of the qualifying condition, which C&M did not have when it terminated Spurling. It doesn't appear that any FMLA medical certification was submitted and the only information C&M had from Spurling as to her serious health condition was a statement she made indicating she needed time off to figure out why she was falling asleep. The court did not find this as notifying C&M of a "serious health condition."
The case is Kimberly Spurling v. C&M Fine Pack, Inc., Case No. 13-1708 (7th Cir., January 2013).