Notifying the employer of your disability

A doctor’s note may save your job

RUTH Featherstone worked for Southern California Permanente Medical Group. She suffered from a sinus condition that required surgery. After several weeks of disability leave, she returned to work without restrictions. A few days after returning to work, Ruth informed her supervisor that she was resigning effective immediately because “God had told [her] to do something else.” She posted something similar on Facebook. Her supervisor did not consider her behavior odd, as the reference to God was consistent with her character. Ruth’s supervisor asked her to confirm the resignation in writing, and she did so three days later.
The day after she resigned, she was hospitalized due to erratic behavior, including walking around naked in front of family and friends. A coworker, who learned of the hospitalization, shared it with HR but was told HR could not communicate with her since she was not a relative.
Five days after Ruth confirmed her resignation, she contacted the HR department and informed them that she had been suffering from an adverse drug reaction that caused her to be in an altered mental state. She asked to rescind her resignation. The employer refused. Ruth then sued the employer for wrongful termination, and specifically for failure to accommodate her disability.
The employer argued that Ruth had resigned, and that the employer was not aware that she needed accommodation for any disability.  The trial court dismissed the case and Ruth appealed.
The Court of Appeal agreed with the employer whom it found was not on notice of any mental disability. The information provided by the coworker that Ruth had been hospitalized was not enough to put the employer on notice that Ruth required accommodation for a disability.
Because the employer was not on notice that Ruth required accommodation, the employer was not obligated to engage in the interactive process, which would have required the employer to determine accommodations that would allow the employee to perform her job.
An employer is required to make reasonable accommodation to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified employee with a disability. However, before an employer must make such an accommodation, the employer must know that such limitation exists. In general, it is the responsibility of the employee to inform the employer that an accommodation is needed.
Where the need for an accommodation is not obvious, the employer, before providing a reasonable accommodation, may require that the individual with a disability provide documentation of the need for accommodation.
If unable to work due to disability, the employee is better protected by obtaining a medical certification (or simply a doctor’ note). That medical documentation may contain the name of the health care provider, and certification that the employee has a physical or mental condition that limits a major life activity, and a description of why the employee needs a reasonable accommodation.
Immediately providing a doctor’s note to the employer will let the employer know that the employee requires accommodation. The employer will then have a duty to engage in an interactive process, protecting the employee from wrongful termination.

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The Law Offices of C. Joe Sayas, Jr. welcomes inquiries about this topic. All inquiries are confidential and at no-cost. You can contact the office at (818) 291-0088 or visit or our Facebook page Joe Sayas Law. [C. Joe Sayas, Jr., Esq. is an experienced trial attorney who has successfully recovered wages and other monetary damages for thousands of employees and consumers. He was named Top Labor & Employment Attorney in California by the Daily Journal, consistently selected as Super Lawyer by the Los Angeles Magazine, and is the recipient of PABA’s Community Champion Award for 2016.]

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