Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The ugly realities of life exposed in this disability discrimination claim

This plaintiff worked for a private hospital and repeatedly received FMLA leave over her physical ailment, cancer. After she did not return to work as scheduled, the hospital fired her. At trial, the jury awarded plaintiff a lot of money: $541,000.00 on her New York State disability discrimination claim, which the trial judge reduced to $440,000.00. The Court of Appeals takes away the verdict for good, and defendants win.

The case is Vangas v. Montefire Medical Center, decided on May 19. My guess is that this is not an FMLA case because plaintiff had exhausted her 120-day allotment under the statute. I do not know why this case did not proceed under the Americans with Disabilities Act. You don't see too many Second Circuit cases resolved solely under the State Human Rights Law, but here we are. In any case, after plaintiff's medical leave was extended on a number of occasions, she was finally supposed to return to work on August 30, 2010. The day before, plaintiff left a voice mail stating she did not feel well and was following up with doctors. She did not return to work on August 30, and was fired that day. On August 31, she conceded in a conversation with management that she was not "medically cleared" to return to work.

This is what we call a sympathetic plaintiff. She was fired at a time when she suffered from cancer. The jury certainly thought plaintiff was sympathetic, as it found in her favor. But the courts do not care about sympathetic plaintiffs. They care about applying the law. In this case, the Court of Appeals (Jacobs, Hall and Restani [sitting by designation]) says plaintiff's case fails for an elementary reason: no reasonable accommodation was available to her because she was unable to perform her job. Here is the reasoning:

At the time of her final request for leave and termination, Vangas was incapable of performing the essential functions of her job. She was not medically cleared to return to work and admitted that she could not do so. Therefore, at that time, the only possible accommodation was an extension of leave, as she was incapable of working, in any capacity, whether at home or in the office. Vangas did not request an extension of leave for a specific time period—she simply informed MMC that she was not feeling well, would not be returning to work on August 30, 2010, and could not give MMC a date for her return to work. The district court correctly interpreted these actions as requesting an indefinite leave extension, which as a matter of law is not a reasonable accommodation.
This case exposes an ugly truth of employment law, and really of life in general. Plaintiff began working for the hospital in 1989, so she put in more than 20 years. The law doesn't care. We call it "employment at will," which means you can be fired for any reason or no reason at all unless your termination violates a specific law. As the Court of Appeals sees it, plaintiff was unable to work. Yes, she has a disability, but there is no reasonable accommodation that can help her, at least none recognized by the law. So the case is over.

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