In Spurling v. C&M Fine Pack, Inc, 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 660, the Seventh Circuit (which covers Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin) reversed, in part, a district court’s entry of summary judgment in favor of an employer in a FMLA discrimination and ADA failure to accommodate suit. 

The plaintiff, Spurling, was a night shift forming inspector/packer employed by C&M.  In 2009, Spurling received several disciplinary warnings regarding her falling asleep while on duty.  On February 15, 2010, Spurling received a Final Warning/Suspension after she left the worksite to use the restroom and was found by a coworker sleeping in the restroom.  Upon her return to work after her suspension, Spurling met with the plant manager and three of her supervisors where she indicated that her sleep issues were caused by medication that her doctor had prescribed and produced a doctor’s note to that effect.  Spurling continued to experience difficulty remaining conscious at work and on April 12, 2010, Spurling’s shift supervisor reported her for being completely asleep while packing parts.  On April 15, 2010, Spurling was issued a Final Warning/Suspension note informing her that due to the repeated incidents of sleeping on her shift, she was being suspended until the company decided how best to proceed.  The letter indicated that Sterling should provide any information relevant to the company’s deliberation prior to April 19.   

On April 16th, Spurling met with the HR Manager at C&M to inform him that her performance issues might be related to a medical condition.  The HR Manager provided Sterling with a letter regarding the ADA and documentation for Spurling’s physician to complete with instructions for the paperwork to be returned no later than April 30.  Spurling alleged that she requested time off to determine the extent of her medical issue after she received the paperwork.  Spurling returned the ADA paperwork, which stated that she had a mental or physical disability covered under the ADA, to C&M on April 21 and was told that the company would review the material and get back to her.  C&M’s HR Manager testified that the information provided by Spurling’s doctor was insufficient to establish that she suffered from a disability under the ADA; therefore, C&M proceeded with terminating Spurling’s employment on April 28, 2010.  On May 27, 2010, Spurling received a diagnosis of narcolepsy, which in her case was manageable with proper medication.  

In granting summary judgment in favor of the employer, the District Court held that an employer could not be held accountable for discrimination under the ADA when both it and the employee are unaware that a qualifying medical condition exists.  According to the District Court, Spurling’s employment termination took place on April 15, and at that time, no discrimination could have occurred because neither the company nor Spurling had knowledge of her condition.  Applying the same reasoning, the District Court held that Spurling’s FMLA claim failed because C&M could not be held liable for firing Spurling for a qualifying condition it was unaware she had.

According to the Seventh Circuit, the actual issue in the case was whether the April 15 letter to Spurling sufficed to terminate her employment.  Disagreeing with the lower court, the appeals court applied the “unequivocal notice of termination” test in answering the question of employment termination.  The court held that April 15 was not the date of employment termination because, at that time, there was not a final decision to terminate Spurling’s employment, and C&M had not given her unequivocal notice of its final termination decision.  April 28 was the date C&M actually communicated its final termination decision to Spurling; therefore, that was the date of termination for purposes of analyzing the failure to accommodate claim.  

Analyzing the accommodation claim, the court determined that C&M began the ADA interactive process with Spurling by asking her to complete the ADA paperwork but failed to follow through.  Instead of engaging in the interactive process by seeking further clarification from Spurling or her doctor concerning the medical evaluation, the company disregarded the evaluation altogether and proceeded with her termination.  C&M’s failure to engage in the interactive process was not alone actionable, held the court.  C&M’s failure to engage in the interactive process prevented the identification of an appropriate accommodation for a qualified individual, Spurling.  That conduct was actionable since it was found that Spurling could have performed the essential functions of her job by taking medication to control her narcolepsy.   Ultimately, the court held that C&M properly began the interactive process envisioned by the ADA but failed to carry it through.

With regard to Spurling’s FMLA claim, the appeals court held that Spurling’s statement to the HR Manager prior to her medical evaluation that she needed time off to figure out why she was falling asleep was not sufficient to put her employer on notice that she had a “serious health condition” requiring FMLA leave.  According to the court, unless an employer already knows the employee has an FMLA authorized ground for leave, the employee must communicate the ground to the employer.  The court held that C&M had no way of discerning that Spurling’s inability to stay alert was possibly a FMLA issue because employees falling asleep on the third shift was not atypical, and it was something for which Spurling had already been disciplined. 

The take away is that employers must be careful about starting a process that they have no intention of completing.  Once C&M provided an opportunity for Spurling to engage in the interactive process, which was accepted by Spurling’s completion and return of the ADA paperwork, it no longer had the luxury of proceeding with the termination until the process was complete.