When is an employee a qualified individual with a disability under the MHRA?

Monday, August 7, 2017

Maine’s highest court recently weighed in on what it means to be a qualified individual with a disability under the Maine Human Rights Act.  Affirming a summary judgment in favor of the employer in Carnicella v. Mercy Hospital, the Law Court found that an employee who remained absent from work after exhausting her leave failed to demonstrate that she was a qualified individual with a disability where there was no dispute that she was unable to perform the essential functions of her job with or without an accommodation at the time of her termination.

The employee in the case, Carnicella, was a registered nurse who developed a serious medical condition requiring an absence from work.  In August 2013, Carnicella’s employer, Mercy Hospital, granter her full leave under Maine’s medical leave law and then extended it after Carnicella developed post-surgery complications.  In December 2013, shortly before Carnicella was due to return to work, her surgeon informed Mercy that Carnicella was not able to resume work and that her anticipated return date would be on March 15, 2014.  In January 2014, however, Carnicella’s primary care physician notified Mercy that a March return date was premature and estimated that Carnicella would be able to return to work without restrictions on June 1, 2014.  At a subsequent meeting with Carnicella, Mercy told her that it would extend her leave until March 15 and that if she was unable to work at that time then she could transition to per diem status.  When March 15 came, however, Carnicella left a voicemail with Mercy stating that she was still not able to return to work.  Carnicella did not propose any accommodations that would have allowed her to return to work.  Believing from her voicemail that Carnicella did not want to remain a per diem employee, Mercy terminated Carnicella’s employment.  Although Mercy reversed the termination within weeks and reinstated Carnicella after she made it clear that she wanted to remain a per diem employee, Carnicella sued Mercy claiming that she had been terminated because of her disability.  Mercy moved for summary judgment, which the court granted.

On appeal, Carnicella argued that the court incorrectly found that she was not a qualified individual with a disability.  The Law Court did not agree.  According to the Law Court, two questions are relevant to the determination of an employee’s qualified status: 1) whether the employee can perform the essential functions of his or her job; and 2) if not, whether any reasonable accommodation would enable the employee to perform those functions.  As to the first question, the Law Court found that because Carnicella had never received a medical clearance to return to work, there was no dispute that she was unable to perform the essential functions of her job when she was terminated.  With respect to whether a reasonable accommodation would have allowed Carnicella to do so, the Law Court noted that additional leave was the only accommodation Carnicella arguably sought.  However, the Law Court found this accommodation was unreasonable because of a statutory defense under the MHRA, which absolves an employer of liability for discrimination if, at the time of an employee’s termination, the employee is unable to perform their job duties.  Because Carnicella was unable to perform her job duties at the time she was terminated, and because additional leave “would necessarily continue to prevent” her from doing so, the Court reasoned that the statutory defense applied and made additional leave unreasonable as a matter of law.

The Law Court’s decision is noteworthy given other cases exploring the interplay between disability and medical leave laws and the sometimes thorny issue of extended leaves.  One such case is Hwang v. Kansas State University, which the Law Court cited with approval in Carnicella, but which is arguably at odds with the EEOC’s views on what disability laws like the ADA require after an employee has exhausted a medical leave.  Employers should therefore take the Carnicella decision in context, just as they should do when dealing with any disabled employee.