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Fourth Circuit Says Employee's Inability to Work Dooms ADA Claim

    Client Alerts
  • February 04, 2022

When describing employees’ rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act, we often contrast them with leave entitlements available under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Unlike the FMLA, the ADA does not entitle employees to accommodations. In the end, the plaintiff claiming protection under the ADA must show that they are capable of performing the essential functions of their job. This distinction was used last month by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia) to affirm dismissal of an ADA claim by a plaintiff who admitted that he was completely unable to work.

In Jessup v. Barnes Group, Inc., the plaintiff took a leave of absence following a debilitating panic attack. His employer reinstated him, but eliminated his position shortly thereafter and moved him to a different role he viewed as a demotion. The plaintiff claimed that these moves triggered another panic attack, and he requested a second extended leave a few months after returning from the first one. The employer declined to grant the length of leave requested by the plaintiff, and terminated him based on his inability to perform the essential functions of his job.

The plaintiff sued, alleging failure to accommodate his disability under the ADA. When deposed, he admitted that he remained completely and continuously disabled following his second panic attack. The Fourth Circuit used this admission to affirm dismissal of the lawsuit. The court noted that the plaintiff was not a qualified individual protected under the ADA because he could not perform the essential functions of his job. His continuing incapacity demonstrated that additional leave would not have been an effective accommodation in terms of allowing him to return to work.

Because the ADA is not an entitlement statute, employees are not automatically eligible for ADA medical leave (or any other accommodation) if the employer can demonstrate that the request (1) will not be an effective way to allow the employee to perform the essential functions of the job; or (2) imposes an undue hardship on the company.