Some of the most frequent questions we receive from employers involve managing the performance of employees with medical issues. While employers understand their nondiscrimination obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act, these performance issues often appear unrelated to the employee’s underlying medical condition. A new decision from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals demonstrates how employers can evaluate and, if necessary, eventually manage such people out of the organization.
In Stelter v. Wisc. Physicians Service Ins. Corp., the plaintiff injured her back on the job. Two months after returning to work from the injury, she received a below-average evaluation and was placed on a performance improvement plan. Her manager met with her on a weekly basis to discuss the performance issues, which involved lack of familiarity with the company’s products and excessive time missed from work for personal reasons. Eight months after the PIP was issued, the employer concluded that the plaintiff had not made sufficient progress and terminated her employment. She filed suit, alleging that she was terminated in violation of the ADA due to her back condition.
The Seventh Circuit affirmed dismissal of the suit on summary judgment. In its opinion, the court reviewed the steps taken by the employer prior to making the termination decision. These included (1) regular evaluations both before and after the injury noting the performance deficiencies, (2) documentation of the plaintiff’s absences, along with emails from her manager discussing product knowledge deficiencies, (3) attempts by the employer to provide additional training to the plaintiff, and (4) regular meetings and discussions during the PIP period pertaining to the work issues.
The court said that no reasonable jury could conclude that the plaintiff was terminated for any reason other than performance issues unrelated to her alleged disability. While the facts of this case resemble many of those presented to us, this employer’s evaluation and disciplinary processes and documentation proved crucial in the dismissal of these claims. Absent the ability to prove that it had engaged in these performance management steps, employers that terminate employees with underlying medical conditions may face jury trials over their actual motivation behind the decisions.