Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Southwest Flight Attendant Wins ADA Appeal

March 29th, 2010 | Ellen Simon

Employee Fired For Taking Medical Leave Gets Jury Verdict Reinstated

When does too much time off for an illness justify a termination because of poor attendance? Not every time according to a case decided this past week from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Here’s what happened.

Facts Of The Case

Edward Carmona worked for Southwest Airlines as a flight attendant. He was plagued with psoriasis since he was a teen. As an adult, Carmona developed psoriatic arthritis which causes painful swelling and stiffness in the joints during attacks of psoriasis on the surface of his skin.

During flare-ups, Carmona is in great pain and has difficulty walking and moving around. The flare ups occur three or four times every month and each flare-up lasts for three or four days.

In order to get time off as needed for his condition, Carmona filed for intermittent leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. He was granted FMLA leave between 1998 and 2005, until Southwest determined that he had not worked enough hours to be eligible for renewal.

After Carmona’s FMLA leave expired, he was no longer able to excuse absences caused by his psoriatic arthritis. What followed was a round of progressive discipline which culminated in termination because of an accumulation of points relating to unexcused absences.

The Lawsuit

Carmona sued Southwest claiming that he was terminated because of his disability in violation of  the Americans with Disabilities Act. (ADA)*.

In order to prove an ADA claim, an individual must prove:

  • that he was an individual with a disability within the meaning of the ADA
  • that he was a qualified individual for his job, despite his disability,
  • and that he was discharged because of his disability

In order to establish a disability, Carmona had to establish that he had:

  • a physical or mental impairment that substantially limited one or more major life activities
  • a record of such an impairment or
  • that he was regarded as having such a impairment.

After a jury trial which Carmona won,  the judge granted judgment against Carmon as a matter of law on the grounds that he did not present sufficient evidence of a disability.  Specifically, the judge found Carmona’s intermittent limitations didn’t prove a substantially limiting impairment. In other words, the judge ruled that Carmona was not disabled as a matter of law and took away the verdict.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and reversed in it’s opinion issued this week. You can read the decision here.

In sum, it held that the verdict should stand because there was sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to conclude that:

  • Carmona had an impairment that substantially limited his major life activity of walking
  • he was a qualified individual for his job
  • he was terminated because of his disability
Take Away

This is a really good decision for those who have conditions which cause intermittent disabling flare-ups and need to take time off of work because of it. It will particularly benefit those employees who work for employers not covered by the FMLA (companies with less than 50 employees).

The case also has a helpful discussion on Southwest’s core argument — that Carmona was not qualified for the job because of his poor attendance.

It’s also  good decision for those with cases pending before the ADA amendments Act of 2008. The Court did not apply the amendments retroactively, yet still found for the plaintiff under the narrower pre-amendments law.

The Court also wrote about reinstatement as a remedy — another topic we don’t see very often in ADA opinions.

In sum,  this case is a good result for employees and instructive to employers on the interplay of attendance policies and the ADA.

( *Carmona also had a Title VII claim; the jury found against him on that claim )

Image: blog.cleveland.com

*This post originally appeared in Employee Rights Post on March 27, 2010. Reprinted with permission by the author.

About the Author: Ellen Simon: is recognized as one of the leading  employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States.She offers legal advice to individuals on employment rights, age/gender/race and disability discrimination, retaliation and sexual harassment. With a unique grasp of the issues, Ellen’s a sought-after legal analyst who discusses high-profile civil cases, employment discrimination and woman’s issues. Her blog, Employee Rights Post has dedicated readers who turn to Ellen for her advice and opinion. For more information go to www.ellensimon.net.


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