By: Carol G. Schley, Clark Hill PLC
BOUNCING STRESS BALLS LEAD TO ADA AND FMLA CLAIMS
A recent case from the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes Michigan) is a reminder that what appears to be innocuous workplace behavior can sometimes snowball into a lawsuit.
The case, Tinsley v. Caterpillar Financial Services, involved plaintiff Cindy Tinsley, who was a long-time employee of Caterpillar. After being employed for several years, Ms. Tinsley was assigned to the Four Pillars Project (“FPP”). Her direct supervisor was Amy Clendenon, who in turn reported to Paul Kaikaris.
After a couple of years, Ms. Tinsley asked Mr. Kaikaris to remove her from the FPP because she was overwhelmed with work and feeling “stressed beyond what [she was] physically able to handle.” In response, Mr. Kaikaris and Ms. Clendenon reassigned some of Ms. Tinsley’s projects. Shortly thereafter, Ms. Tinsley took a few days off under the FMLA for a “confidential medical condition.” About two months later, Mr. Kaikaris and Ms. Clendenon met with Ms. Tinsley to discuss her poor work performance, gave her a “did not meet performance expectations” mid-year review, and put her on a performance improvement plan (“PIP”). Ms. Tinsley vehemently disagreed with the PIP, and told Mr. Kaikaris that she believed he gave her a poor review because she had complained to him about her co-workers bouncing stress balls while at work. She then sent emails to HR about the stress of her position, stating that her mid-year review was inaccurate and that she was being subject to a “hostile work environment” due to her co-worker’s “horseplay,” which included stress ball bouncing. HR investigated and found that Ms. Tinsley mid-year review was appropriate.
Thereafter, Ms. Tinsley began taking frequent medical leave due to “mental and emotional duress.” She also repeatedly requested a new supervisor. The employer did not provide her with a new supervisor, but for an extended period of time granted her leave requests, providing her with FMLA leave that significantly exceeded the statutory 12 weeks maximum. Ultimately, the employer advised Ms. Tinsley it could not reasonably accommodate her medical condition or her request for a new supervisor and denied her request for additional medical leave. She then retired and sued the company for failure to accommodate under the ADA and retaliation under the FMLA.
At the trial court level, the employer won on summary judgment on both claims, and Ms. Tinsley appealed. The Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of the ADA claim, finding that Ms. Tinsley wasn’t disabled under the ADA. To establish a disability, Ms. Tinsley was required to show she was substantially limited in a major life activity. She claimed that she was limited in the major life activity of working, but all she could show was that she couldn’t perform her particular job. This was insufficient according to the court, because “a plaintiff who asserts that her impairment substantially limits the major life activity of ‘working’ is still required to show that her impairment limits her ability to ‘perform a class of jobs or broad range of jobs.’” Therefore, because she did not prove a disability under the ADA, the employer had no obligation to reasonably accommodate her.
However, with respect to the FMLA claim, the Court of Appeals reversed the lower court. In particular, the court found that the close temporal proximity (approximately two months) between Ms. Tinsley taking FMLA leave and her negative performance review raised an inference that the performance review was done in retaliation for her taking the leave. Accordingly, the court remanded the case back to the trial court for further proceedings on the issue of whether the employer could demonstrate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its adverse employment action against Ms. Tinsley.
This case demonstrates that seemingly innocuous conduct in the workplace, like bouncing stress balls, can spiral into a lawsuit. While we don’t know all of the circumstances surrounding Ms. Tinsley’s employment, the case indicates that there are a few things the employer could have done that perhaps may have avoided a lawsuit, such as:
- Minimizing disruptive behavior in the workplace. Tinsley’s main complaint against her supervisor was that he allowed raucous behavior at work. While such behavior is not necessarily legally forbidden, it can negatively impact the work atmosphere and lead to dissention, especially if it begins to get too out of hand. There is nothing in the case that indicates the employer ever told Mr. Kaikaris to cool it with the stress ball bouncing.
- Monitoring employee performance to address issues early and on an ongoing basis. Tinsley was shocked by her mid-year performance review and being put on a PIP. While sometimes an employee’s work performance can decline rapidly, in many cases, poor or declining performance is something that, if monitored correctly, can be caught and addressed early. You want to avoid situations where an employee is blindsided by a negative performance review.
- Properly Tracking FMLA Leave. Tinsley’s repeated requests for leave resulted in the employer granting her FMLA leave well beyond the 12 weeks statutory maximum. An employer should carefully track and document FMLA leave to ensure compliance with the law and to avoid an employee’s leave time running amok.
- Hiring Counsel. When there are ongoing issues with an employee, or situations that seem potentially problematic, it is best to involve legal counsel sooner rather than later. Legal counsel can provide guidance on how to effectively handle the issues while minimizing potential liability, hopefully preventing litigation down the road.
Carol G. Schley is a member of the Detroit SHRM Legal Affairs Committee and an attorney at the law firm Clark Hill PLC. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (248)530-6338.
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