When Compassion and Employment Law Intersect

When an employee asks for a reasonable accommodation due to cancer, compassion goes a long way as does knowing employment law.  Always be flexible and reasonable when it comes to ADA requests. Document everything, promptly respond, and explore all options for a reasonable accommodation. Otherwise, the following true story that we have seen many iterations of may occur:

Claudia Vestal was the controller of K&L Auto Crushers. In December 2018 she was diagnosed with cancer and required chemo. She told her supervisor, the company owner, that she would need 4 to 6 rounds of chemo and her doctor anticipated that she would be finished with chemo around April 2019. They agreed that she would be paid hourly and get paid for whatever time she felt she could work.

On January 17, 2019, Claudia was told that a temp would do her work and she should just focus on chemo.  She asked to work from home and received no response. Over the next 3 weeks she gave 8 health update to the employer.  Her employer however didn’t attempt to also communicate consistently.

On February 6, 2019, Claudia texted that she would start a new round of treatment, but the doctor said she could go to work on Monday. K&L responded and told her to stay home until she was done.

Over the next few months Claudia continued to keep her employer posted on her medical condition, and on May 7th, she let them know she was done with chemo and asked when she could come back. Again, K&L did not respond.

On May 18th, eleven days later, K & L advised Claudia that  her position was no longer available and that they had, in fact, terminated her on February 6th, the very day she had informed them that she could return to work.  They asserted that they just didn’t want to tell her that news while she was undergoing treatment.

Claudia filed a complaint with the EEOC which found K & L to have violated the ADA law, suing K & L as a result.  K & L agreed to a settlement totaling $90,000.

In this story, Claudia asked to work from home and for a modified work schedule. The company made no effort to work with her, denying her request altogether instead.  The company did not engage in an interactive process with her to see if it could come up with a reasonable accommodation, as is required.  If the request presented an undue hardship on the company, it had the right to deny her request, but the interactive process was not engaged, and no such determination was made.  By not responding and not engaging in the interactive process, the company failed its duty to follow the law and treat Claudia with the dignity she was lawfully due. It certainly didn’t help K & L’s case that they fired Claudia while she was undergoing chemotherapy.

If your organization operates human resources by the seat of its pants, making things up as it goes, it is both unsurprising and inevitable that something will go sideways.  If an employer is considering any adverse action against an employee, best check with a professional before doing so.  Skipping that step will very possibly put anyone in the same position as this employer found itself in.