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Some bosses are visibly irked when they receive a doctor’s note restricting the work an employee can perform. If the employee notices that reaction and then gets disciplined or fired, watch out for a lawsuit!

Her attorney will probably try to link the timing of the doctor’s note and the adverse employment action as proof of discrimination or retaliation.

But that strategy won’t work if you can show the court that the employee had presented similar notes in the past without suffering any repercussions. The court will be more likely to accept your explanation—such as poor performance—for why you disciplined or fired the employee.

Advice: Retain all doctors’ notes you receive.

Recent case: Leslie Nyholm worked as a machine operator in a shop that made transmission parts. When she became pregnant, she gave her supervisor a doctor’s note that restricted her schedule and the amount of weight she could lift.

Meanwhile, the company had written up Nyholm several times for wasting materials. In fact, she had the worst “scrap rate” in the shop. Shortly after Nyholm delivered the pregnancy note, the company fired her.

She sued, alleging sex and pregnancy discrimination.

The company explained that it had fired Nyholm for poor performance—specifically, for her excessive scrap rate. It also pointed out that Nyholm had in the past presented several medical restriction notes, and the company had never acted against her. The court dismissed her case. (Nyholm v. International Precision Machining, No. 08-1356, DC MN, 2009)

Final note: Train supervisors to accept medical excuses with a smile—or at least not with a frown. They should handle the request professionally and always forward the form to HR. Tell bosses to explain that you will review the form and contact the employee.

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