The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that you not discriminate against people with disabilities and that you make reasonable accommodations for a disabled employee. However, the employee has to be capable of doing the "core functions" of a job. That may not be as cut and dried as you might think, as the City of Evanston, Illinois, found out.

Biago Stragapede worked for the City of Evanston for 14 years, when he had an accident at home (not work related) that resulted in him being out for 9 months. When he returned, the city's doctor had concerns about the traumatic brain injury he suffered and sent him to a neurologist for an evaluation. The neurologist recommended a "work trial" to see if Stragepede could do his job. The city gave him a two-week trial and then he returned to work full time.

All of these things are fine. When someone has had a serious injury, you need a doctor to release them to work again and you'd be negligent if you didn't. But, the problems started a couple of weeks later when Stragapede made some mistakes and needed some help at work.

Here's where the city made its expensive error: Instead of sending Stragepede back to the neurologist for a follow-up examination, they just reported the problems to the neurologist. The neurologist said that Stragepede couldn't perform the essential functions of the job, and the city terminated him.

Stragepede sued for ADA violations and won--$354,070. Sure, the city saved $150 or so, by not sending him back to the neurologist for an exam, but lost out big time.

Employment Attorney Robin Shea explained a few of the things the city did wrong, although to be fair, she says that overall, the city did a pretty good job.

Not paying for a follow-up exam: This should really be a no-brainer (no pun intended). If you're terminating an employee for medical reasons, the doctor needs to examine the patient. In this case, the neurologist relied solely on information from the city. Shea points out that "the appeals court (Seventh Circuit) found that a jury could rightfully conclude that the neurologist acted on information that was tainted or, at least, incomplete." Pay for the doctor's visit.

Disregarding the direct supervisor. In this case, the city decision makers didn't ask Stragepede's direct supervisor. It turns out that the direct supervisor thought he was capable of doing the job. "Employers, never disregard the opinions of your front-line supervisors," says Shea. (Italics in the original.)

Acting on a "legal conclusion" from a doctor. A doctor can determine what you are fit for and what you are incapable of doing, but the doctor doesn't get to determine if an employee can perform the "essential functions of the job." Now, the company didn't control what the doctor wrote in his letter (at least, they shouldn't have), but companies need to be careful that they separate out the medical evaluation from the legal evaluation.

While you should always be concerned about costs, if you're thinking of terminating an employee for medical reasons, don't try to save money or time. It's not worth it in the long run, as Evanston found out. Pay for that doctor's appointment. Talk to the direct supervisor. Hire an attorney. Otherwise, you may find yourself on the paying end of a big lawsuit.

Published on: Aug 11, 2017
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