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Posthumous settlement shows ADAAA impact

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in Employment Law,Human Resources

Maxim Healthcare Services has agreed to pay $160,000 to the estate of a Minneapolis nurse who died of cancer, ending a tragic case that highlighted the reach of the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA).

The ADAAA, which became law in 2008, expanded the ADA definition of “disability” to include many chronic conditions such as cancer.

Anne Whitledge, a former St. Paul police officer, entered the nursing field after a squad car accident ended her law enforcement career. She be­­gan working for Maxim Health­care Services in Minnesota, but was diagnosed with brain cancer less than a year later. She continued working, but needed to take eight weeks of medical leave in late 2008.

When Whitledge sought to return to work in February 2009, Maxim asked that she obtain her doctor’s clearance, which she did. The doctor said 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.

Losing her job cost Whitledge and her husband the only life insurance they had. Eight months later, Whit­­ledge’s husband had a heart attack and died. Two months after that, Whit­­ledge died, leaving their children orphans.

The EEOC sued Maxim on Whit­ledge’s behalf, alleging it violated the ADAAA because it did not explore reasonable accommodations with Whitledge.

The case made it to court, with Maxim arguing that rehiring Whit­ledge would have endangered patients. But when the health care company was unable to present evidence to support its position, executives appar­­ently had a change of heart. Rather than trusting its fate to a jury, the company elected to settle.

In addition to paying Whitledge’s estate, Maxim’s settlement agreement requires regular training for managers and supervisors on ADA accommodations and employee rights under the ADAAA. A consent decree forbids Maxim from requiring disabled workers to be totally free of medical restrictions before they can return to work.

The court also ordered Maxim Healthcare executives to write a letter of condolence to Whitledge’s children, who are now being raised by her former police partner.

What this means to employers: The ADAAA expands the definition of disability to include many chronic conditions such as diabetes and cancer. As a result, employers may not challenge whether an employee with those conditions is disabled or needs accommodation.

Since the ADAAA was enacted, the number of charges of disability ­discrimination has increased by 20% in the EEOC’s Minneapolis office.

Advice: If you hear that an em­­ployee has cancer, immediately shift into accommodation mode. Your goal: Determine if the employee can perform the job’s essential functions with the right accommodation.

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