The ADA Amendments Act was passed in 2009. Since then, courts have addressed more fundamental questions about disability claims, such as what are the essential functions of a job and how can they be accommodated? On one such case, Perez v. Sprint/United Management Co., 2013 WL 6970898, No. 12-CV-3161 (N.D. Ga 12/19/2013), the court denied summary judgment and found that there was factual dispute regarding whether the employee could perform the essential functions of the job. Gilbert Perez was a systems engineer in charge of setting up presentations for other workers. He was diagnosed with bilateral ankle degenerative joint disease. As it worsened, the pain increased. He started using a cane and was then fired.
The court accepted the employer’s claims regarding what the essential functions of the job included. So, the question remaining was whether the plaintiff could perform those functions. The plaintiff argued that he could perform those essential functions without accommodation. The employer argued he could not perform those functions with or without accommodation.
The court found there was a genuine factual dispute based on the plaintiff’s own testimony, and on the lack of any write-ups on the plaintiff regarding his job performance. The court also noted that co-workers testified that Mr. Perez could perform the functions of his job without change. He could still, climb ladders, for example. The plaintiff was helped occasionally, but said one co-worker, it was common for workers to help each other.
The court also noted that when Mr. Perez applied for short term disability benefits, the policy management group denied his claim, saying his disability was not serious enough. The jury, said the court, was entitled to conclude from this finding that his disability was not serious.
The employer did not adequately investigate Mr. Perez’ medical condition, said the court. So, the employer did not perform an individualized assessment of his request for accommodations.
The court also found direct evidence of discrimination. A supervisor had wanted to say that Mr. Perez would be fired because he was medically unable to do his job. HR recommended different language, but the intent was still apparent. The court also found there were sufficient facts indicating this statement was pretext. That is, the plaintiff could actually do his job, but the employer was fabricating. Since, there were no write-ups regarding his performance. It was also possible that the doctor’s explanation was not that Mr. Perez could not perform the job, but that the doctor was simply suggesting possible accommodations. And, noted the court, HR advised the supervisor in an email that she remove any references to the plaintiff’s medical condition from Mr. Perez’ file.
Later, at trial, Mr. Perez was awarded $125,250 by a jury. Still pending is a request for front pay, and attorney’s fees.
Note that the court accepted the Plaintiff’s version of the need for accommodations, as it should. The court found fault with the employer for not having documented any perceived performance problems and for not looking into his medical documentation. The employer could have asked for more information if it did not understand the doctor’s notes. And, it is almost always a sure loser to claim after-the-fact performance issues.
Note also that a few co-workers testified for Mr. Perez. It is rare to have that sort of support at trial or summary judgment. The presence of co-workers implicitly risking their own jobs to testify for a co-worker has a powerful effect.