Quick Hits

  • The Eleventh Circuit affirmed a district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of an employer where a former employee seeking an accommodation under the ADA had failed to provide paperwork consistent with the employer’s return-to-work policy.
  • The court stated that an employer may discharge an employee for any reason “not rooted in discrimination.”
  • The opinion reinforces the importance of consistently applying paperwork requirements before deciding whether to discharge an employee.

Background

Eric Jones, a twenty-four year employee of the Georgia Ports Authority (GPA) and a U.S. Army veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), sought and took leave in August 2018 under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Jones requested the leave because he felt his immediate supervisor had fostered a stressful environment, exacerbating Jones’s PTSD symptoms. After twice extending his leave, Jones sought to return to work and secure a transfer to a less stressful work area. The GPA policy required that an employee seeking to return from leave lasting longer than three days provide GPA with a signed doctor’s note indicating that it was safe for the employee to return to work.

The return-to-work paperwork Jones submitted stated that Jones “‘report[ed]’ he was able to return to work on January 25, 2019, and noted Jones needed to continue his psychiatric follow-up appointments and to attend individual or group therapy.” Although the letter was written on letterhead of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and contained his doctor’s contact information, Jones’s doctor “did not sign the letter—electronically or otherwise.” Additionally, before his return-to-work date, Jones was scheduled to meet with GPA’s physician. Jones appeared for his scheduled appointment, but he was told that the physician had an unexpected emergency and could not see him that day. Jones’s appointment was rescheduled for the following week, but it was also canceled.

After review, GPA deemed Jones’s return-to-work letter deficient, citing a lack of signature and clarity regarding his readiness to return. GPA terminated Jones’s employment in February 2019, citing the deficiency of his return-to-work letter. While GPA acknowledged that it “could have attempted to verify the return-to-work letter, such as by reaching out” to Jones’s doctor, GPA established that it “generally did not make attempts to verify letters that did not initially meet its policy requirements.” On the same day of Jones’s discharge, GPA’s executive director emailed Jones’s supervisor “to ask what was ‘wrong’ with Jones, and [Jones’s supervisor] responded that Jones suffered from ‘[a]n illness that only [Jones knew] about.’”

As a result, Jones filed a complaint, claiming that GPA had denied his reasonable accommodation request and unlawfully terminated his employment. GPA moved for summary judgment, contending that it had based the termination on nondiscriminatory grounds—Jones’s failure to provide an adequate return-to-work letter. Jones argued pretext, citing evidence including his return-to-work letter, his rescheduled health appointment with GPA’s physician, and his supervisor’s comment about Jones’s illness. Despite Jones’s arguments, the district court granted GPA’s motion for summary judgment, finding no evidence of pretext. Jones appealed the decision.

The Eleventh Circuit’s Decision to Affirm

In its unpublished opinion, the court clarified its focus not on whether Jones’s termination of employment was “prudent or fair” but on whether unlawful discriminatory intent had influenced the decision. The court emphasized that employers may discharge employees “for a good or bad reason, or for no reason at all, so long as that reason was not rooted in discrimination.” Notably, the court stated that “an employer’s honest belief that an employee violated employer policy, even if such belief was wrong, may constitute a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for termination.”

On appeal of the district court’s judgment, Jones argued that GPA’s failure to verify his return-to-work letter, along with his supervisor’s email, the language in the letter, his lack of awareness about its insufficiency, and the rescheduling of his appointment with GPA’s doctor, suggested pretext for termination.

In affirming summary judgment, the Eleventh Circuit found Jones failed to meet his burden of providing evidence that GPA’s reason for termination was pretext. Further, the court noted that GPA’s “failure to verify” the unsigned letter or obtain a clear recommendation from Jones’s doctor did not indicate discriminatory intent. The evidence showed that GPA typically did not verify noncompliant letters, and Jones failed to offer any evidence to refute that position. Additionally, the court found no evidence that GPA was motivated by discrimination when it failed to notify Jones of the letter’s deficiencies. Although there was a dispute about whether Jones was informed of the letter’s deficiencies, the court held that this did not support a finding of discriminatory termination. Moreover, the court concluded that the unsigned letter did not clearly indicate Jones’s ability to return to work, supporting GPA’s decision to terminate his employment.

In response to Jones’s supervisor’s email, which indicated that Jones was ill with a condition known only to Jones himself, and which Jones interpreted as evidence of his supervisor’s “negative feelings” about his PTSD diagnosis, the court determined that even if his supervisor did harbor such feelings, there was no evidence implicating his supervisor in deciding to discharge Jones. Likewise, the court did not see any causal link between the rescheduled appointment and his termination of employment. Instead, the evidence demonstrated that GPA terminated Jones’s employment for failing to comply with company policy, specifically, for not providing a signed letter from his doctor affirming that she professionally recommended Jones’s return to work. Jones’s failure to adhere to GPA policy led to his termination of employment.

Key Takeaways

The Eleventh Circuit’s opinion underscores the value of ensuring consistent practices when making employment decisions, particularly in the context of required documentation for returning to work from leaves of absence. The court’s ruling also underscores an employer’s right to discharge an employee for a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason, such as submitting incomplete required paperwork, that constitutes a basis for employment termination consistent with company practice.

Ogletree Deakins’ Leaves of Absence/Reasonable Accommodation Practice Group will continue to monitor developments and will publish updates on the Leaves of Absence and State Developments blogs as additional information becomes available.

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Leaves of Absence/Reasonable Accommodation

Managing leaves and reasonably accommodating employees can be complex, frustrating, and expose employers to legal peril. Employers must navigate a bewildering array of state and federal statutes, with seemingly contradictory mandates.

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