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Misconceptions about disabled employee’s medical condition can spell ADA trouble

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in HR Management,Human Resources

Many medical conditions aren’t disabling, so they don’t qualify for protection under the ADA. That’s because they don’t actually impair a major life activity like walking, breathing, taking care of oneself or working.

But sometimes employers mistakenly believe that a medical condition is disabling when it’s not. If they express those beliefs, they may make themselves vulnerable to a “regarded as disabled” lawsuit.

That’s why it’s important for HR professionals to explain to managers that every employee who claims a disability must be evaluated on an individualized basis.

Managers should assume that the employee is capable of doing her job unless there is clear evidence to the contrary.

Recent case: Stephanie Chappell was hired as a teacher with the Butterfield-Odin School District. Chappell has epilepsy and has had occasional seizures since she was a teenager.

Her first few weeks went well except when someone complained about the way she answered the phone in her classroom. Apparently, Chappell read books “in character” to her young students. If the phone rang, she remained in character for the duration of the call. He supervisor asked her to stop.

Then Chappell learned that her next semester schedule would not include a preparation break at midday. She complained and explained that she needed a break then to manage a neck problem and fatigue that might trigger a seizure. She also asked for several accommodations, including not having to chaperone school dances because the disco ball and flashing lights might cause seizures.

From then on, things went from bad to worse with her supervisor. He asked the school board to suspend her, pending an investigation into her complaint that he was treating her poorly because she was disabled.

Chappell was asked to sign a resignation letter. In exchange for receiving a month’s salary, the school district promised not to report her to the state board of education.

She then sued, alleging she had been coerced into quitting.

In court, the principal testified he was shocked to learn that a classroom teacher had epilepsy, stating that he was concerned that she might have a seizure in the classroom and might fall and hurt herself. He said that he had never seen anyone suffer a seizure, but couldn’t imagine how she would handle a seizure in front of children.

The court sided with Chappell, reasoning that nothing she was alleged to have done was even potential ground for losing her teaching license, and therefore the threat to report her made her resignation involuntary. Then the court said Chappell wasn’t technically disabled because her seizures were very infrequent. But because her supervisor believed she was unable to work in the classroom, he had regarded her as disabled. That was enough to send the case to trial. (Chappell v. Butterfield-Odin School District, No. 08-CV-0851, DC MN, 2009)

Final note:
The court also expressed shock that the school district had suspended Chappell, pending an investigation into her complaint.

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