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Chronic fatigue syndrome or just too pooped to work?

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

If you have an employee who seems constantly exhausted, take note: He or she may suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). And under the newly revised Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), that person could be deemed “disabled” and entitled to reasonable work accommodations.

Case in Point:
Lorin Netterville was diagnosed with CFS in the late 1980s, but she’d lived symptom-free for many years. That ended soon after she began work as an administrative aide for Chevron. She suffered a relapse of her CFS, whose symptoms include joint pain, inability to concentrate and excessive fatigue.

Netterville asked for intermittent leave, which was granted. Second, she asked for permission to take more frequent breaks and to alternate job tasks. Chevron never responded to her second request.

Eventually, Netterville was terminated for allegedly misrepresenting her medical history on a pre-hire questionnaire because she failed to state that she’d been diagnosed with CFS.

Netterville sued Chevron for  violating her ADA rights. The key question was whether Netterville was suffering an ADA-qualifying disability at the time of her firing. Employees are covered under the ADA if they have a physical or mental impairment that “substantially limits” one or more major life activities. The new ADA Amendments Act, which took effect on Jan. 1, broadened the meaning of “substantially limits” and, thus, more Americans are now eligible for ADA accommodations at their jobs.

The court sided with Netterville, saying that although “temporary, non-chronic impairments,” such as broken arms, are not ADA-covered disabilities, “the consensus of the medical community is that CFS is a chronic disease of indefinite duration for which there is no known cure.”

The court added, “As the Supreme Court has noted … an impairment does not have to be completely disabling to qualify under the ADA.” (EEOC v. Chevron Phillips Chem., 5th Cir.)

3 lessons learned

1. Don’t be quick to fire. Courts have a “retaliation stopwatch.” They’ll scrutinize how much time has lapsed between the accommodation and when an adverse employment action occurs.

2. Engage in the interactive process. This employer blew off the employee and didn’t respond to her second request. Always communicate with an employee who makes a request for an accommodation. Then document the discussion.

3. Understand the new ADA changes.
The new ADA Amendments Act says that employees with medical conditions in remission may be covered under the ADA. Don’t be a test case for new laws and regulations. Proactive legal advice is always cheaper than reactively defending a lawsuit. For more on the new law, go to www.theHRSpecialist.com/thenewADA.

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