As with most questions arising under the ADA, the answer is a firm “it depends on the facts.” Under the facts of a Sixth Circuit case decided on March 20th, the answer was “no.”
In this case the Plaintiff, Ms. Tinsley, worked as a Business Analyst for Caterpillar Financial. She thought that the stress of her job was causing her to suffer health issues. She initially requested, in writing, that she be removed from specific projects, stating that her “many [work] responsibilities … [were] causing [her] to be stressed beyond what [she was] physically able to handle,” which “negatively impact[ed her] work, sleep, and overall health.” Her supervisor met with her and said that he would look into her request. A week later Tinsley submitted a doctor’s note requesting four days off for a “confidential medical condition.” (Sounds like time to give her FMLA form WH-300-EHealth Care Provider Certificate to me.) Caterpillar granted her leave and upon her return to work the company met with her and reassigned some of her work to other employees.
Unfortunately, Ms. Tinsley continued to perform at a sub-par level. Her supervisor gave her a poor evaluation and placed her on a Performance Improvement Plan.
Ms. Tinsley claimed that poor evaluation and PIP were in retaliation for her complaints that her supervisor had enabled a “hostile work environment” by allowing her co-workers to bounce stress balls off the ground: an act that she claimed triggered her PTSD. Over the next weeks, Ms. Tinsley submitted a series of doctors’ notes requesting more time off for “mental and emotional duress brought on by an over-excessive workload, unrealistic deadlines, a hostile work environment and a manager’s reckless indifference to [her] mental and emotional well-being.”
Caterpillar allowed her five-weeks of FMLA leave in response. When her leave concluded, her physician released her to return to work “at full capacity.” However, her physician also recommended that Caterpillar Financial allow her to work “in a different work environment and specifically under a different manager.” (So much for a release to return to work “at full capacity.”)
Caterpillar did not believe that the request for a transfer to a different supervisor was reasonable and refused. (Keep in mind that the same condition that requires time off under the FMLA will often require a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.) The Company did, however, allow her to take an additional eight weeks of FMLA leave.
Upon the expiration of her eight weeks of FMLA leave Ms. Tinsley refused to return unless Caterpillar transferred her to another supervisor. Caterpillar refused and Ms. Tinsley retired and sued Caterpillar, arguing that Caterpillar had failed to reasonably accommodate her and that she had been constructively discharged.
Caterpillar moved for summary judgment on Ms. Tinsley’s ADA claim, arguing that she was not a disabled person. The Trial Court granted Caterpillar’s Motion and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. Ms. Tinsley admitted that the only major life activity impacted by her PTSD was working. Thus, in order to show herself to be disabled, Ms. Tinsley was required to show that her PTSD sufficiently limited her ability to perform a class of jobs or a broad range of jobs. In this case, the record showed that Ms. Tinsley’s issues stemmed directly from her supervisor’s management style, as opposed to the duties or responsibilities of a broad range of jobs. The Court of Appeals pointed out that Tinsley admitted that she told Caterpillar’s Human Resource personnel that she would be able to perform the essential functions of her position as long as she was allowed to work under a new supervisor and that her PTSD was triggered by “the way [her supervisor] managed … with all the ball bouncing.” (Thank you HR, for keeping detailed records of the interactive process with Ms. Tinsley.) The Court found that Ms. Tinsley’s diagnosis did not limit her ability to work a broad class of jobs, but rather it limited only her ability to work under a specific supervisor. Thus, she was not “disabled” under the ADA and, as such, she was not entitled to reasonable accommodation.
The take away from this case is not that a personality issue with a supervisor can never trigger your obligations under the ADA. However, if an employee’s performance issues are related only to a specific co-worker or superior, they may not be disabled. The key is to be aware of the nuances of what constitutes a “disability” and when your obligations to make an accommodation are triggered. Even if Ms. Tinsley had qualified as a “disabled” person, her request to work under another supervisor may not have been reasonable. That is an issue for another time…