Skilled practitioners know they must keep an eye on potential employment litigation stemming from workers' compensation claims. The case of Dallefeld v. The Clubs at River City, Inc., 2017 AD Cases 244151 (D. Illinois 2017) provides a good illustration.
Jason Dallefeld was the Director of Membership Sales, providing tours, selling memberships, and making sure other employees showed up for work at The Clubs. He injured his right knee in 2009 at his previous job but continued to treat while working at The Clubs beginning in 2012. Dallefeld informed the business manager, Ms. Robinson, and the president, Mr. O'Connell, of his knee injury. He sometimes walked with a limp at his job. He told Robinson and O'Connell that he reinjured his knee on the job on four occasions in 2013 and 2014 at The Clubs. The incidents involved slips on water and climbing stairs. Dallefeld did not lose time from work immediately after these incidents.
On March 26, 2014, Dallefeld's doctor placed him off duty. The physician said that Dallefeld aggravated his prior knee condition while working at The Clubs and would need surgery. On April 1, 2014, Dallefeld traveled to Florida with his girlfriend. Dallefeld's doctor approved light duty work in May 2014 before a planned knee surgery. The light duty work issue was not resolved until June 2, 2014, when Dallefeld met with Robinson and O'Connell. Dallefeld claimed that O'Connell told him to go have his surgery. However, a termination letter had already been sent to Dallefeld on June 1, 2014. That was never mentioned in the meeting on June 2, 2014. O'Connell testified that the reason for the termination was that Dallefeld was never specific about when he was going to have his knee surgery and that Dallefeld's job duties needed to be reassigned to two other employees at a busy time for The Clubs.
There was a dispute whether Dallefeld requested leave under the FMLA. At least one other employee had been given FMLA leave. Dallefeld claimed that he had never gotten a handbook, although he had been in meetings where the FMLA was discussed. He essentially argued that he provided enough information to The Clubs that they should have notified him of his rights under the FMLA.
Dallefeld sued under the FMLA and ADA. Regarding the FMLA, The Clubs argued that Dallefeld drove to Florida with his girlfriend during the period that his doctor took him out of work, and he continued to lift weights at The Clubs while out of work. The employer also noted that Dallefeld did not schedule the surgery that his doctor wanted to perform. However, the Court commented that driving and lifting weights did not prove that Dallefeld could give tours, which was one of the essential job functions. The Court also observed that O'Connell claimed that he did not receive the May 21, 2014 work status note from Dallefeld. That was an important issue of fact. Under these circumstance, the Court said that a sufficient amount of disputed fact existed regarding notice by Dallefeld to take FMLA leave to survive summary judgment.
The work status note from May 21, 2014 also became a big issue in the ADA claim. His doctor said in that note that Dallefeld was released to light work modified duty, and that he could not lift or carry more than 20 pounds and was limited to frequent lifting of ten pounds or less. His doctor said that Dallefeld could have worked within these restrictions if The Clubs had given him an accommodation of not walking around and doing tours. Dallefeld argued that this note was a request for accommodation. For his part, Dallefeld said that he could perform duties such as sitting at his desk, answering the phone and using the computer.
The Court concluded that a fact finder could find that Dallefeld's May 21, 2014 note was in effect a request for reasonable accommodation. For this reason, the Court allowed Dallefeld to proceed to a jury on this issue and denied The Clubs' motion for summary judgment.
The case shows how problematic it is to terminate employment soon after the employee provides a note suggesting imminent surgery or a need for modified duty. These facts should have alerted the employer to the potential for both FMLA and ADA application, and in the end the Court found potential violations of both laws.
John H. Geaney, Esq., is an Executive Committee Member and a Shareholder in Capehart Scatchard's Workers' Compensation Group. Mr. Geaney concentrates his practice in the representation of employers, self-insured companies, third-party administrators, and insurance carriers in workers' compensation, the Americans with Disabilities Act and Family and Medical Leave Act. Should you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Mr. Geaney at 856.914.2063 or by e?mail at email@example.com.
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