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When does ‘I quit’ mean ‘Help, I’m disabled’?

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,FMLA Guidelines,Human Resources


Employees today are anxious about losing their jobs. On the extreme, they may be experiencing full-blown clinical depressions.

If you know an employee is suffering from depression, don’t be so quick to accept his or her hasty resignation, a new court ruling shows. Instead, you may need to identify this person as “disabled” under the ADA and, therefore, engage in an interactive process to find a work accommodation.

Case In Point:
Marcy Ann Smith, an Iowa state employee, went out on FMLA leave after being diagnosed with depression. Just before she planned to return to work, Smith showed up and resigned.

A few days later, she asked to withdraw her resignation. Her employer refused. It said she could apply for other state jobs. She did, but all her applications were denied.

Smith sued under the ADA, saying supervisors refused to rehire her because they knew she suffered from depression. She also claimed the state’s refusal to accept her resignation reversal was retaliation for taking FMLA leave. 

The ADA says that when employers are “on notice” that an employee has a disability, they must engage in an “interactive process” with the employee to determine reasonable job accommodations to the disability.

The state argued that Smith never officially said her hasty resignation was related to her disability. But Smith’s lawyers argued that it was the employer’s job to make that connection. Who was right?

The court sided with Smith. It said that even if Smith failed to make an explicit request for an ADA accommodation, “Employers must meet employees halfway. And if it appears that (employees) do not know how to ask for an accommodation, employers should do what they can to help.”

It also said that Smith’s FMLA retaliation claim was valid because there was no reasonable explanation for not reinstating her upon her request. Smith noted that the department knew of her clinical depression. As such, the judge admonished, “The department had a duty to determine if her resignation was attributable to her depression, or if she had other valid reasons for leaving.” (Smith v. Iowa, Iowa Ct. App., No. 8-460/07-1689)

3 lessons learned

1. Don’t take every action at face value. Remember, when employees have mental disorders, don’t take all their actions at face value. Consider that these actions may be ADA triggers, which obligate employers to engage in the interactive process to determine reasonable accommodations.

2. Establish an interactive processes work script. Consider an effective script like, “Thank you for letting me know. Let’s work together to understand the options.” Then get back in touch with the employee and offer a solution.

3. Get ready for an ADA explosion.
New ADA amendments taking effect Jan. 1 require employers to construe disabilities more broadly than in the past.

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