United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit 827 F.3d 296 June 28, 2016 Keywords:
Title I of the ADA, reasonable accommodations, discriminatory discharge, defective notice of rights
John Vannoy was diagnosed with major depression on September 23, 2010. Between October 22, 2010 and November 15, 2010, he had several unscheduled absences from work at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond (“FRBR”), which may have been to seek medical treatment. He informally cleared these absences with supervisors via text message and email. After many other absences from work and not completing the employee portion of a performance improvement plan, Vannoy was terminated. Vannoy brought suit against FRBR alleging failure to accommodate and discriminatory discharge under the ADA, and interference with his FMLA rights.
Facts of the Case
Vannoy worked for the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond (“FRBR”) for 16 years. He had a history of depression and sought treatment on September 23, 2010. He was diagnosed with major depression and the professional counselor recommended he enter a 30-day in-patient program. Vannoy did not enter a program and continued working, though he missed work a few times, which may have been to seek medical treatment. He cleared these informal absences with his supervisors via text message and email. He was admitted to a hospital on November 10, 2010 and again was advised to enter an in-patient treatment program, but refused because he did not want to miss more days of work. He did, however, request short-term disability leave from November 10 to December 10, which was granted by FRBR. Vannoy was afraid to lose his job so he reported for work during his requested disability leave. FRBR sent him home saying he could not work until he was cleared by his doctor. He got a doctor’s note that cleared him for work, and returned on November 16. FRBR sent Vannoy on a three-day work trip to Baltimore on November 30. Vannoy drove to the assignment in a company car and stayed in the hotel, but did not report for his job duties. Upon return from that assignment, Vannoy was put on administrative leave while FRBR was deciding what to do about this absence. FRBR placed Vannoy on a performance improvement plan on December 16. The performance improvement plan, in part, required Vannoy to fill out an employee section by December 20. Vannoy had an unscheduled absence on December 20 when the employee portion was due. He reported to work the next day and his supervisor told him he needed to complete the employee portion of the plan. Vannoy said that he could not complete the employee portion and left work. FRBR then terminated Vannoy’s employment. Vannoy brought claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act for failure to accommodate and discriminatory discharge, as well as a claim that FRBR gave him defective notice of his rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The district court for the Eastern District of Virginia granted summary judgment in favor FRBR on all claims, and Vannoy appealed.
One might believe FRBR is subject to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, rather than the ADA, because it is part of the Federal Reserve System. Although the Federal Reserve System was created by an act of Congress and is a government agency, each Federal Reserve Bank is privately owned and so is not subject to the Rehabilitation Act (see Woodward, 1996).
Issues of the Case
- Did the plaintiff have a valid discriminatory discharge claim under the ADA?
- Did the plaintiff have a valid claim for failure to accommodate under the ADA?
- Did the plaintiff assert a valid claim of defective notice of his rights under the FMLA?
Arguments & Analysis
1. Did the plaintiff have a valid claim of discriminatory discharge under the ADA?
In the Fourth Circuit, to establish a valid claim of discriminatory discharge, a plaintiff must prove that he: (1) has a disability, (2) is a qualified individual, and (3) in discharging him, the employer discriminated against him because of his disability (see Martinson v. Kinney Shoe Corporation, 1997). As for the first element, Dr. Brugh, FRBR’s Medical Director, had treated Vannoy for depression prior 2010, and both he and Vannoy’s doctors at St. Mary’s Hospital agreed Vannoy needed to attend a rehabilitation program for depression and alcoholism, which the ADA recognizes as disabilities. Vannoy completed his responsibilities at FRBR successfully up until October 22, 2010, and thus was a qualified individual, meeting the requirement of the second element. Regarding the third element, the Court cited two of its previous decisions that said, “the ADA does not require an employer to ignore such egregious misconduct by one of its employees, even if the misconduct was caused by the employee’s disability”, Jones v. American Postal Workers Union (4th Cir. 1999); and “misconduct, even misconduct related to a disability, is not itself a disability, and an employer is free to fire an employee on that basis.” Martinson v. Kinney Shoe Corporation (4th Cir. 1997). The Court found Vannoy’s actions to be blatant and persistent misconduct, and that FRBR had a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for terminating his employment.
2. Did the plaintiff have a valid claim for failure to accommodate under the ADA?
The ADA states that employers must engage in an interactive process with employees to find appropriate reasonable accommodations, if employees request it. But “an employee cannot prevail simply by demonstrating that his employer failed to engage in the interactive process; he also must show that this failure to engage in the process resulted in the failure to find an appropriate accommodation” (Fleetwood v. Harford Sys. Inc., 380 F.Supp.2d 688, 701 (D.Md.2005)). Vannoy did not request an accommodation and his doctor released him to work with no restrictions. An employee cannot file a claim for failure to accommodate if there was not a request for accommodation. The Fourth Circuit agreed with the lower court’s decision to grant summary judgment in favor of FRBR for Vannoy’s claim for failure to accommodate. The Court cited to the lower court’s language, which said, “it is difficult to imagine an employer trying harder to help an employee to succeed” even taking all the facts and reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to Vannoy.
3. Did the plaintiff assert a valid claim of defective notice of his rights under the FMLA?
The FMLA requires that employers provide employees notice of their rights and responsibilities under the act “to ensure that employers allow their employees to make informed decisions about leave.” More specifically, employers must provide a “rights and responsibilities notice,” and a “designation notice.” The FMLA “provides no relief unless the employee has been prejudiced by the violation.” While FRBR sent Vannoy an email on November 16 informing him that he had 480 hours of leave, Vannoy contended he never received the rights and responsibilities notice and therefore could not make an informed decision about his leave. FRBR did not contest this so the Court concluded that FRBR did not abide by that FMLA Regulations. Vannoy provided enough evidence that he would have taken the entire month off had he known his job was safe, so the Court held the lower court should not have granted summary judgement to FRBR because it was not clear if FRBR’s failure to deliver the rights and responsibilities notice prejudiced Vannoy. Vannoy also claimed that his termination was in retaliation for his FMLA leave. However, the FMLA does not regulate employers’ disciplinary actions caused by employees’ misconduct. Due to his unscheduled absences, lack of communication while in Baltimore, and failure to complete his section of the performance improvement plan, the Fourth Circuit Court agreed with the lower court granting summary judgement to FRBR.
The Court affirmed the summary judgment ruling of the lower court for both of Vannoy’s ADA claims, because there was no genuine dispute as to any material fact. However, the court found that genuine issues of material fact existed regarding whether FRBR interfered with Vannoy’s FMLA rights by providing defective notice, vacated that part of the district court’s judgment, and remanded the case for further proceedings on the FMLA claim.
Policy & Practice
Employers can terminate an employee who has a disability if there is persistent misconduct by the employee, even if such misconduct is related to the disability, without violating the ADA. An employee who is terminated needs to provide evidence that there was no legitimate, non-discriminatory purpose for the termination, not just assertions of discriminatory intent. Employers must issue a rights and responsibilities notice to employees requesting leave under the FMLA. If employees claim to not have received this notice, they must prove the lack of notice prejudiced their decision to take leave before FMLA will provide relief.
- Full case, Vannoy Decision of the Fourth Circuit: scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=7451518907672315627&hl=en&as_sdt=6&as_vis=1&oi=scholarr
- Fleetwood v. Harford Sys. Inc., 380 F.Supp.2d 688 (D.Md. 2005), scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=6270078364467475627&hl=en&as_sdt=6&as_vis=1&oi=scholarr
- Jones v. Am. Postal Workers Union, 192 F.3d 417 (4th Cir. 1999), http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-4th-circuit/1277920.html
- Martinson v. Kinney Shoe Corp., 104 F.3d 683 (4th Cir. 1997), https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=6507764357148366315&hl=en&as_sdt=6,33&as_vis=1
- Woodward, G.T. (1996). Money and the Federal Reserve System: Myth and Reality. CRS Report for Congress, No. 96-672 E. http://home.hiwaay.net/~becraft/FRS-myth.htm#hd2
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These materials were prepared by the legal research staff of the Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University in partnership with the Southeast ADA Center to highlight legal and policy developments relevant to civil rights protections and the impact of court decisions in the Southeast Region under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These materials are based on federal disability rights laws and court decisions in effect at the time of publication. Federal and state disability rights law can change at any time. In addition, state and local laws and regulations may provide different or additional protections. Materials are intended solely as informal guidance, and are neither a determination of your legal rights nor responsibilities under the ADA or other federal, state, and local laws, nor binding on any agency with enforcement responsibility under the ADA. The accuracy of any information contained herein is not warranted. Any links to external websites are provided as a courtesy and are not intended to nor do they constitute an endorsement of the linked materials.