In a recent case, the court found an employee diagnosed with Stage IV inoperable Adenocarcinoma pancreatic cancer had a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).
The court further held that the employee was entitled to reasonable accommodations in the form of a modified work schedule to obtain chemotherapy treatment. The court concluded that the employer’s termination of the employee less than two months after starting treatment, despite no negative reviews regarding his job performance, was sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss for claims of discrimination under the ADA.
Donaldson v. Trae-Fuels, LLC
In October 2013, Michael Donaldson began working for Trae-Fuels, a limited liability company in Virginia, and EnviroTech, Trae-Fuel’s managing member. Donaldson reported to John Frink and Kevin Whyrick. In May 2014, Donaldson was diagnosed with Stage IV inoperable Adenocarcinoma pancreatic cancer. Upon learning of the diagnosis, Donaldson’s supervisors expressed concern about his ability to work, asking whether he would want to work part-time.
In June or July 2014, Donaldson informed his supervisors that he would be undergoing chemotherapy two out of every three Fridays, but intended to maintain a full 40-hour workweek. Throughout chemotherapy, Donaldson maintained a 40-45-hour workweek. However, on August 20, 2014, less than two months after beginning chemotherapy, Donaldson was terminated.
He wasn’t provided an explanation for his firing, but was told “we are not letting you go because you are sick.” When Donaldson asked the reason for his termination, he was told “I think you know what it is.” Prior to his termination, Donaldson never received any negative feedback or reviews regarding his job performance. Donaldson filed an action against Trae-Fuels and EnviroTech for violating the ADA, claiming they denied his request for reasonable accommodations and terminated him because of his disability.
The ADA prohibits discrimination “against a qualified individual on the basis of disability in regard to . . . the hiring, advancement, or discharge of employees.” Discrimination can also include the failure to make “reasonable accommodations.” Here, the defendants argued that Donaldson’s claims must fail, because he did not establish that (1) he was disabled within the meaning of the ADA and (2) defendants refused to provide an accommodation.
Under the ADA, “disability” means “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual” or “being regarded as having such an impairment.” “Major life activities” includes “concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working,” as well as “the operation of a major bodily function,” including the “functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, [and] digestive . . . functions.” In 2008, Congress enacted the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (“ADAAA”), which broadened the definition of “disability” to make it easier for people with disabilities to obtain protection under the ADA. The court explained that “the question of whether an individual’s impairment is a disability under the ADA should not demand extensive analysis.”
Here, Donaldson argued that he was disabled, since his “pancreatic cancer was a physical limitation that substantially limited his major bodily functions regarding his normal cell growth and his digestive functions.” The court found that while some of the allegations regarding the limiting effects of Donaldson’s cancer were “arguably conclusory,” his impairment “plausibly qualifies as a disability under the ADA.” The court noted that this conclusion is also consistent with the regulations implementing the ADAAA, which recognize cancer as a disabling impairment “in virtually all cases,” since “cancer substantially limits normal cell growth.”
Alternatively, Donaldson claimed that even if he wasn’t disabled under the ADA, the defendants regarded him as having a disability. Under the ADA, an individual is “regarded as having a disabling impairment” if the individual can establish that he has been subjected to an action prohibited under the ADA because of an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment whether or not the impairment limits or is perceived to limit a major life activity.” Whether a plaintiff is regarded as disabled “turns on the employer’s perception of the employee” and the plaintiff only needs to establish that he was regarded as having a physical or mental impairment. The court here determined that Donaldson plausibly alleged that the defendants terminated him because of his cancer diagnosis.
The court considered that, prior to his diagnosis, the plaintiff never received any negative feedback, reviews, or complaints about his work, but upon learning of his cancer diagnosis, supervisors criticized him for inconsequential things, expressed concern about the Donaldson’s ability to work, hired a temporary accountant to assist him “while he was sick,” and then terminated him two months after beginning chemotherapy, even though he maintained a full-time work schedule. While Donaldson was being terminated, he was referred to as being “sick.” The court concluded that although Donaldson was told that the status of his health was not the reason for his termination, the facts alleged “support a contrary inference at the pleading stage.” Thus, the court held that Donaldson has adequately alleged that he was both actually disabled and regarded as disabled by the defendants.
Donaldson also claimed that defendants failed to make reasonable accommodations in violation of the ADA. “Reasonable accommodations” may include job restructuring or modified work schedules. The defendants argued that the only accommodation Donaldson requested was that he be allowed to undergo chemotherapy two out of every three Fridays, which defendants agreed to. However, the court here explained that employers cannot “escape liability for failure to provide reasonable accommodation by terminating employment.” Since Donaldson was terminated less than two months after he began undergoing chemotherapy, the court found Donaldson plausibly alleged that the defendants terminated his employment rather than provide the requested accommodation. Based on this, the court concluded that Donaldson stated a claim for failure to
accommodate and wrongful termination.
What Does Donaldson v. Trae-Fuels, LLC Mean for Employers?
Here, the court notably held that cancer can be a disability under the ADA. This is important for all employers to be aware of, because if employees are diagnosed with cancer and notify their employers of this, they may be entitled to protections under the ADA. Under the ADA, an employee cannot be discriminated against on the basis of his disability and employers must make reasonable accommodations to allow employees with disabilities to do their jobs. As noted here, reasonable accommodations may include a modified work schedule. The court also noted here, that an employer can’t avoid providing a reasonable accommodation by terminating the employee. Employers should exercise caution when taking adverse employment actions against employees with disabilities, to ensure that actions aren’t considered discrimination based on the employee’s disability in violation of the ADA.
If you need more guidance or information, contact the employment law experts at General Counsel, PC today at 703-991-7973. Attorneys at General Counsel, PC are specialized in labor and employment law and have experience working with business owners and individuals across Virginia, specifically in Fairfax County, Arlington, Loudoun County, and Prince William.