The tragic case of a St. Paul nurse who died of cancer may soon test the reach of the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA), now that the EEOC has filed a lawsuit alleging that her employer violated the law by refusing to accommodate her disability.
Anne Whitledge was working for Maxim Healthcare Services in Minnesota when she was diagnosed with cancer. She continued working, but needed to take medical leave in late 2008. In a complaint against Maxim, which is based in Maryland, the EEOC alleges she attempted to return to work after an eight-week leave in February 2009.
Maxim asked Whitledge to have her doctor clear her to return to work, something the EEOC says she did. The clearance claimed she could work a normal schedule, but would periodically need a day off to rest. Despite the clearance, Maxim fired her, saying she was unable to perform her job’s essential functions.
When Maxim terminated Whitledge, she lost the only life insurance she and her husband had.
Eight months later, Whitledge’s husband had a heart attack and died. Two months after that, Whitledge died, leaving their 10-year-old daughter an orphan. A family friend is now raising their daughter.
The EEOC suit alleges Maxim violated the ADAAA because it did not explore reasonable accommodations with Whitledge.
The ADAAA, which amended the original ADA in 2008, tells courts and employers to interpret broadly the definition of disability. It also says they must consider certain conditions (cancer among them) as always being disabilities.
The suit seeks compensatory and punitive damages and the proceeds of the life insurance policies Whitledge carried when she was an employee. If successful, the damages could reach the $300,000 statutory maximum.
Notes: This case could raise the stakes for employers dealing with disabled employees. If the facts alleged in the EEOC complaint are true, Maxim did not engage in the interactive process the ADA requires.
Employers that refuse a reasonable accommodation request must have documentation showing exactly how much that accommodation would have cost, and show that no other accommodation could have allowed the disabled worker to continue in the job at a reasonable cost. That analysis is vital to the employer’s defense, especially in cases involving cancer, autism, cerebral palsy, AIDS, diabetes and epilepsy—conditions the ADAAA recognizes as disabilities in all cases.