In Walz v. Ameriprise Financial, Inc., 2014 WL 2154144 (D. Minn. May 22, 2014), the Minnesota federal district court addressed two important issues under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and Minnesota Human Rights Act (“MHRA”). First, the court held that an employer may terminate an employee for misconduct that is caused by a disability if the employee’s behavior violates job-related conduct standards. Second, the court held that an employee is not entitled to a reasonable accommodation if the employee did not actually request an accommodation.
Facts of Walz
In 2011, plaintiff Marissa Walz (“Walz”) was recruited to work in the newly formed Enterprise Operations Support Department of Ameriprise Financial, Inc. (“Ameriprise”) as a Process Analyst II. One aspect of her position was maintaining good relationships with others within the company. Walz has Bipolar I Disorder, which is characterized by extreme mood swings from depression to mania that may cause significant difficulty in one’s job or relationships. Prior to employment, and during employment, she did not disclose her disorder to anyone at work, but her symptoms affected her conduct at work and her supervisor and coworkers noticed her erratic behavior.
In February 2012, Thad Radel took over supervision of Walz, at which time she had a serious flare-up of her disorder and was extremely manic. Walz’s coworkers expressed concern to Radel that Walz was “acting out of character,” was not her usual “calm and professional” self, seemed “manic,” and needed help. Radel noted in his log of Walz’s behavior that she was sending e-mails that did not make sense and her behavior was erratic. Radel confronted Walz to discuss her conduct and she began complaining about him, senior leadership, and her coworkers. After another incident with coworkers, Radel spoke with Walz again to ask what was bothering her and offer help. Afterward, Radel received several more complaints and e-mails expressing concern over Walz’s behavior and her vocal criticisms of the leadership team.
Radel and the human resources department agreed to issue Walz a behavioral warning. The warning summarized her conduct over the preceding week and notified her that she faced immediate termination if she acted inappropriately again. Following the warning, Walz requested several days off work, which she was granted. She returned from leave on April 16, 2012, at which time Radel had her review and sign Ameriprise’s Individual Treatment Policy. The policy describes the company’s prohibition on discrimination and encourages employees with disabilities to speak to their supervisors or HR about any accommodations they might need. For the next three months, Walz had no further behavioral problems. On Tuesday, July 31, 2012, Walz disrupted a meeting by talking over others, refusing to let them finish, and intimidating people who did not agree with her.
After the meeting, Radel met with a supervisor and a senior manager in HR to discuss Walz’s conduct. With their guidance, he decided to terminate Walz’s employment on August 1, 2012.
Walz later sued Ameriprise, alleging that it discriminated against her on the basis of her disability by failing to accommodate her and by terminating her employment, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the Minnesota Human Rights Act (“MHRA”).
In the litigation, Ameriprise brought a motion for summary judgment asking the court to dismiss Walz’s case. Ameriprise did not dispute that Walz was a qualified individual and disabled by virtue of her bipolar disorder. Nor did Ameriprise dispute that she suffered an adverse employment action. Instead, Ameriprise maintained that Walz could not show her termination was based on her disability because the decision makers were unaware of it. Ameriprise also argued that it was entitled to terminate her employment based on her misconduct, regardless of whether such conduct was caused by her disability.
The court held that Ameriprise did not discriminate against Walz by warning and terminating her, because her behavior violated reasonable, job-related conduct standards. The court noted that an employer must make reasonable accommodations for a disabled employee, but the employer does not need to tolerate misconduct that would result in termination of a non-disabled employee. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) always considers certain conduct standards job-related and consistent with business necessity, such as requirements that employees show respect for, and deal appropriately with, clients and customers. EEOC, Applying Performance and Conduct Standards to Employees with Disabilities § III(B)(9) (Jan. 20, 2011). In this regard, Walz’s job entailed maintaining good relationships with other departments in the company. Accordingly, the court concluded that requiring her to act appropriately and courteously toward coworkers was job-related and consistent with business necessity and that Walz’s disrespectful behavior breached this standard.
Second, the court held that since Walz failed to make a request for accommodation for her disability, Ameriprise did not have a duty to accommodate. Under the ADA and the MHRA, if a disabled employee requests accommodation, then the employer must engage in an interactive process to determine whether reasonable accommodations are possible. If an employee fails to make a request for accommodation, however, then the employer has no duty. In the lawsuit, Walz argued that Ameriprise should have “forced” her to take leave instead of dismissing her. The court rejected this contention, concluding that Walz provided no legal authority for requiring employers to independently detect an employee’s disability, determine what accommodation is appropriate, and force the employee to comply.
Lessons for Employers
- Employers should clearly communicate job expectations and work rules to employees in writing. Such expectations should be contained in the employer’s employee handbook.
- Employers should reinforce job expectations and work rules in written job descriptions for each position. The job description should carefully document all essential functions of the position, including compliance with work rules and employee standards of conduct such as those contained in the employee handbook.
- When enforcing work rules, employers should consistently apply them to all employees. If the employer is inconsistent when enforcing such rules, it will be easier for a disabled employee to argue that the employer held the disabled employee to a higher standard of performance than non-disabled employees.
- If an employee claims to be disabled, and notifies management that he or she cannot comply with a work rule or standard of conduct due to the disability, the company should take the following steps:
- evaluate whether the employee is truly “disabled” as defined by state and federal law;
- determine whether the work rule is job-related and consistent with business necessity;
- review whether the work rule has been consistently enforced against both disabled and non-disabled employees;
- gather evidence from the employee as to why the disability allegedly interferes with the employee’s ability to comply with the work rule;
- gather evidence of the employee’s past ability to comply with the work rule (to establish that the disability does not actually prevent compliance as claimed);
- consider asking the employee to provide medical records to document the existence of the disability and whether it truly interferes with the employee’s ability to comply with the work rule;
- engage in the “interactive process” under the ADA by exploring whether relaxing the work rule (as a form of “reasonable accommodation”) is possible or acceptable to management and determine whether other, less disruptive, accommodations are possible;
- analyze whether relaxing the work rule would impose an “undue hardship” on the employer and, if so, document the hardship; and
- communicate to the employee the employer’s position and document the interactive process.
Given the complexity of state and federal disability discrimination laws, it can be difficult to determine when employees are legally “disabled” and entitled to “reasonable accommodations.” The employer’s responsibilities under the ADA and MHRA become more complicated when the employee asserts that a disability prevents the employee from complying with stated work rules or job expectations. While the employer’s first instinct may be to discipline the employee for engaging in workplace misconduct, the employer should carefully evaluate whether the work rule has been consistently applied to all employees and represents an essential function of the employee’s position.
If you are an employer facing an employee’s request to be excused from a work role due to a disability, contact one of the experienced Minnesota employment law attorneys of Trepanier MacGillis Battina P.A.
About the Author:
Minnesota employment attorney Craig W. Trepanier regularly represents employers in employment law matters including defending claims of disability discrimination and failure to reasonably accommodate under the ADA and MHRA. If you have questions regarding your company’s obligations under the ADA and MHRA, or need assistance defending a claim of disability discrimination, please contact him at 612.455.0502 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Trepanier MacGillis Battina P.A. is a Minnesota disability discrimination law firm located in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
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