A Tennessee federal judge recently ruled that a termination notice referring to an employee’s “long-term disability” was direct evidence of discrimination and retaliation.  The Court granted the employee judgment as a matter of law under the ADA.

The employee, Coffman, had been off work on an extended medical leave.  She had exhausted her FMLA leave and remained off work due to restrictions.  Coffman refused a job offer of a sedentary job.  Notes from Coffman’s physician indicated that the refusal was unreasonable, but the employer did not obtain those notes until after it had fired Coffman.  At the time, the Company accepted her refusal of the sedentary job and kept her on leave. 

Some months later, two weeks before Coffman was scheduled to return with minimal restrictions, she was sent a termination letter indicating that she was being terminated “due to your long-term disability.”  (Coffman v. Robert J. Young Co., M.D. Tenn., No. 10-01052, 5/14/12).  The Court noted that even though she had been on an extended leave, granting Coffman two more weeks of leave was not an undue hardship.

Lessons here:

  • Consider carefully the language in your separation notices – Tennessee law requires a written separation notice, and employers must ensure that these notices do not become evidence of unlawful motives.  Here, the employer argued that the extended leave was the reason for the termination, not the disability.  The separation letter said otherwise.
  • Assess employee’s circumstances on an individual basis – Exhausting leave entitlement can be a legitimate reason for termination, but that should not be an automatic action.  Rather, an employer should make an individualized assessment of the employee’s circumstances and the employer’s operational needs.  The employer should include the employee in that assessment, as part of the “interactive process.”
  • Determine if you are required by law to grant extended leave – Of course, under the ADA, a continued leave is a reasonable accommodation.  Depending upon the situation, an employer may be required by law to extend some additional leave.
  • Obtain medical certification – After Coffman refused to return to work in the sedentary job that was offered, the employer should have asked Coffman for medical certification justifying that refusal.  If she did not provide such certification, her refusal to return to work could have been (and should have been) viewed as a voluntary quit.