Occasionally, an employee finds it difficult to work with particular co-workers or supervisors. Usually, that’s no big deal. But sometimes, strained interpersonal relationships cause such friction that the employee may seek medical treatment.
What should you do if the employee produces a health care professional’s diagnosis of stress, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), along with a recommendation to reassign the employee?
Do you accept that the employee is disabled and consider the reassignment as a reasonable accommodation? Or do you challenge the employee’s disability claim?
The correct answer is that you can both challenge the claimed disability and the idea that the transfer is a reasonable accommodation. That way, you cover all bases.
Recent case: Laura Frantz worked as a registered nurse at a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital. She was classified as an associate chief nurse and supervised 140 employees.
The hospital monitored medication use by tagging each patient with a bar-code bracelet. Each time meds were administered, nurses scanned the patient’s bracelet, as well as a bar code on the medication packaging. That way, the system checked whether the medication was correct and whether the patient in fact received the medication doctors had prescribed.
Frantz was temporarily suspended after her supervisor discovered that a patient got the wrong bracelet. An internal audit of patients under the care of Frantz’s employees uncovered 300 cases of missed medication administrations over a six-month period.
The stress took a toll on Frantz, and her doctor diagnosed her with anxiety and PTSD. He recommended six months off, followed by a transfer to a different supervisor in a different location.
Meanwhile, the hospital decided not to punish Frantz for the medication problem. When she was cleared for work and requested reassignment as a reasonable accommodation, her request was denied. She was placed in another position, but at the same location with the same boss.
Frantz never returned. Instead, she sued, alleging that she was disabled and entitled to accommodations.
The hospital argued that being unable to work with a particular supervisor is not a disability.
The court agreed. It noted that Frantz had been fully cleared for work and therefore wasn’t substantially impaired in the major life function of work. Merely being stressed or unable to work with a particular supervisor doesn’t constitute a disability. Frantz’s suit was dismissed. (Frantz v. Shinseki, No. 1:10-CV-275, MD NC, 2012)
Final note: Smart employers think ahead when considering a dubious disability accommodation request. They may tell the employee that they don’t believe that she’s disabled, but they also analyze whether the requested accommodation is reasonable. If it isn’t, they can also deny the accommodation request, along with the disability claim. Then they document how they came to their conclusion.
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