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Beware firing disabled yet active worker

by on
in Firing,Human Resources

You just found out that an em­­ployee who’s out on medical leave—with severe restrictions on his activities—recently participated in a running event. What should you do?

Think twice before you say, “Fire him!” That could cause lengthy and needless litigation.

A better approach: Ask for more information about his condition and determine whether he really is disabled under the ADA. If he is, but running is consistent with his doctor’s recommendations, you shouldn’t terminate him.

Recent case: William worked as a registered nurse for Thomas Jefferson University Hospital for more than 20 years. Then he hurt his back. A workers’ compensation claim followed, along with a list of medical restrictions that included no lifting more than 25 pounds, no CPR work and no wearing a heavy lead jacket for X-ray duty.

William requested light duty as an accommodation and worked for six months within his restrictions. Then the hospital put him on medical leave as its policy requires when an employee isn’t ready to return to his old job after six months. During his time off, William participated in a running event. When the hospital found out, it fired him for behavior inconsistent with medical leave.

William sued, alleging disability discrimination and retaliation. He alleged that running was part of his treatment plan for bulging discs. The hospital said it didn’t believe he was disabled.

The court said the case could proceed to trial. William will have a chance to show both that his restrictions are severe enough to substantially interfere with a major life function and that running isn’t prohibited or inconsistent with his disability. (Hepner v. Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, No. 12-5443, ED PA, 2013)

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