Last month, the Northern District of Ohio denied an employer’s motion for summary judgment in a disability discrimination case, permitting the plaintiff to proceed to a jury trial. Kathleen Maley, a long-term employee at EMH Regional Health Care Center, was terminated for sleeping on the job. According to Maley, though, she was merely resting her eyes so as to combat her periodic and debilitating migraine headaches. Maley stated she requested permission to shut her eyes from time to time as a reasonable accommodation, but her employer said no. EMH did offer to permit Maley to go home for the day when a migraine hit (using up her FMLA and sick time), but Maley did not like this accommodation.
In letting the case go to a jury trial, the court said Maley’s migraines could qualify as a disability under the law and that permitting her to rest her eyes periodically could have been a reasonable accommodation. The fact that EMH offered an alternative accommodation (e.g., sending her home for the day) did not alleviate its duty to accommodate. The court focused on an employer’s duty to engage in an “interactive process” with an employee when discerning the appropriate accommodation. EMH failed to do so here, and is now faced with the unenviable task of having to explain itself to a jury.
The take-away for employers is be careful when dealing with employees with potential disabilities. Remember the duty to engage in the interactive process in formulating a reasonable accommodation, and make sure supervisors understand this duty. If in doubt, call your lawyer!