The Moral of the Story: Playing Doctor is not a Human Resources’ Function

When an employee presents with an illness or injury and seeks leave or an accommodation, there is an unfortunate temptation for the manager or human resources professional to assume the guise of a medical practitioner and diagnose the legitimacy of that condition. A recent decision by the Massachusetts Appeals Court confirms the folly of giving in to the temptation to “play doctor.”

In Massasoit Industrial Corporation v. Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination decided in late March, the custodial plaintiff-employee was hospitalized with pneumonia. Shortly after his discharge from the hospital, he was readmitted with chest pains and diagnosed as having had a heart attack. Two months later, he attempted to return to work with a doctor’s note clearing him to return without any restrictions. The employer then informed the employee that he had been fired because he was a “no show/no call.” A Hearing Officer of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination determined that this firing was pretextual and that the employer knew of his conditions. Under Massachusetts “pretext-only” legal standard, because the employer lied about the reason, it lost.

On appeal, the Court affirmed the hearing officer’s decision. Noteworthy, however, was the discussion of the employer’s argument that the employee was not entitled to the protections of the disability discrimination laws in the first place. The employer claimed that the employee was not disabled in the eyes of the law. The employee asserted that he was because his condition substantially limited his major life activity of working. The employer countered that this assertion was wrong because (a) the employee’s condition didn’t preclude him from working in a broad category of jobs and (b) it was a temporary condition for which he apparently had fully recovered.

The Court disagreed for two primary reasons, both instructive lessons for employers. The first relates to the breadth with which the Court will find protections for individuals with medical conditions. Speaking to the issue of how broad the limitation on working must be and/or how long the condition must last, the Court stated

The primary object of attention in cases brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act should be whether covered entities have complied with their obligations and whether discrimination has occurred, not whether an individual’s impairment substantially limits a major life activity. Accordingly, the threshold issue of whether an impairment ‘substantially limits’ a major life activity should not demand extensive analysis.

Second, even if the Court were to agree that the employee’s condition did not constitute a disability, it was clear that the employer perceived that the employee was a health risk and regarded him as being substantially limited. This type of “regarded as” disability discrimination was as wrong as discrimination because the employee was, in fact, disabled.

The Moral of the Story? When an employee presents with some medical (or psychological) condition, the employer’s first response should be “how can we help?” not “Oh, really?”

And definitely, a careful analysis of the underlying reasons for any termination must be done before “you’re fired” comes into the picture.

About Rich Van Nostrand

Rich is a partner at the Firm. He has extensive experience in general civil trial work, with concentrations in business, commercial and employment litigation. He provides advice and representation in a variety of business and commercial litigation matters, including shareholder disputes, corporate dissolutions, intra- and inter-company disagreements, and intra-family business disputes. Rich also provides ongoing employment litigation and counseling services to numerous clients in the private, public and higher education sectors. In the private sector, Rich represents clients in a broad range of industries including health care, professional services, high technology, industrial and manufacturing. In addition, he is also frequently selected by litigants to assist in the resolution of their disputes as an independent arbitrator or mediator.
This entry was posted in 151B, Americans with Disabilities Act, Employment Discrimination and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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