There are multiple federal laws that affect the employer-employee relationship. Two such laws are the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) as well as the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”). Lawsuits involving the laws often involve employees suffering from difficult circumstances. Such circumstances can become even more difficult if an employer does not comply with their duties under these laws. By ensuring compliance with these and other employment laws, employers can not only help their employees through difficult circumstances, but also avoid liability themselves.
Liza C. Ariza (“Ariza”) began working as a guard and drove a protected truck for Loomis in February 2008. Ariza claims that at the time that she interviewed for the job, she informed the branch manager that she had seizures. However, the branch manager denied that Ariza had ever told her that she had seizures or another disability. Ariza did not mark that she had seizures or another disability on Loomi’s employment forms. She also did ask for any ADA accommodation in the relevant portion of the form.
In September 2008, Ariza claimed that she underwent a fainting spell or seizure while she was driving a protected truck. Her coworker, who was driving in the truck with Ariza when the alleged incident occurred, testified that he did not see anything indicating a seizure. The records from the emergency room stated that Ariza had suffered a fainting spell. Following this incident, Ariza kept driving the protected truck and did not ask for any accommodations. In 2011, Ariza was promoted to a supervisor position. Ariza claimed that she was moved to this position to accommodate her disability, but Loomis countered that she had requested the new position because of demands from her schoolwork. In June 2012, Ariza allegedly had another seizure at work. At Loomis’s request, Ariza took FMLA leave.
While Ariza was on FMLA leave, Loomis’s benefits supervisor told Ariza that she needed a release from both the company’s physician and a private doctor in order to return to work. Ariza personal neurologist provided a certification indicating that she could return to work, but Loomis ultimately found that the certification had been granted because of false information given by Ariza. The neurologist saw her again and found that she only suffered from common fainting spells, not seizures. However, because Ariza never returned to the doctor, he never submitted the necessary paperwork. Ariza got the needed certificates from her family doctor and the physician who had performed her recent nasal surgery. In August 2012, Ariza’s FMLA leave ended, but Loomis found that she had not met the requirements to be reinstated because she had not received an allowance to resume work from the company doctor. Therefore, Loomis extended Ariza’s by way of their own program. Ariza visited the company doctor the next day after her FMLA leave ended, when he explained that her personal doctor’s return-to-work submission was insufficient because it did not mention whether her alleged seizures were being managed by medication and whether she could carry a gun as part of her job duties. Ariza claims that later she gave the company this needed certification. However, the company doctor stated that the provided documentation was absent of the necessary information, so he was not going to provide a release for her to return to work. Ariza then filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charge against Loomis. In response, Loomis told Ariza that the company doctor was still waiting for a neurologist’s evaluation and that without this evaluation, Loomis lacked proof that Ariza could adequately and safely complete her job requirements.
Approximately ten months after this, Ariza filed a lawsuit against Loomis, claiming violations of the ADA as well as the FMLA. Specifically, she claimed that Loomis discriminated against her because of her disability, that they discriminated against her for having a disability, that they failed to accommodate her disability, and that they interfered with her FMLA rights. The jury found in favor of Loomis in all aspects. Ariza appealed, arguing that the jury committed plain error by failing to find that Loomis regarded her as disabled and by finding that Loomis did not fail or refuse to give her to the same or equivalent job when she returned from her FMLA leave.
With respect to Ariza’s claim that the jury erred by not finding that Loomis regarded her as disabled, the fact that an employer has “mere knowledge” of an employee’s medical condition is insufficient on its own to establish that an employer regarded the employee as disabled. Flanner v. Chase Inv. Servs. Corp., 600 F. App’x 914, 922 (5th Cir. 2015). Furthermore, someone with seizures is not automatically regarded as disabled, depending upon the impact of the seizures on the employee’s major life activities. Although Ariza claimed that Loomis regarded her as disabled because other employees knew of her history of seizures, resulting in changes to her job duties, Loomis provided ample evidence at trial that it did not regard her as disabled. For example, none of Ariza’s records indicated a past record of seizures or another disability. Furthermore, her manager stated that Ariza was transferred to a new position because of a change in her schedule upon starting college, not because they viewed her as a safety threat. Loomis also testified about the lack of observation of symptoms that suggested she had seizures.
With respect the Ariza’s claim that the jury erred by finding that Loomis did not give her the same or equivalent job when she returned from her FMLA leave, the appellate court pointed to evidence Loomis had presented at trial that it had made significant efforts to put Ariza back in her prior position, even offering to cover the cost for Ariza’s visit to her neurologist. However, because Ariza did not get clearance from a neurologist, Loomis was never able to reinstate Ariza. Furthermore, the neurologist testified that Loomis never interfered in such a way as to inhibit Ariza’s return to her position.
Therefore, there was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s findings both that Loomis did not regard her as disable and that Loomis did not fail to restore her to a proper position upon her return from her FMLA leave. Thus, the appellate court upheld the trial court’s finding.
When navigating the complex issues surrounding claims of employment discrimination and the FMLA, it is important to consult with an experienced attorney in order to determine the best course of action.
Additional Sources: Ariza v. Loomis Armored US
Written by Berniard Law Firm Blog Writer: Megan Richardson
Additional Berniard Law Firm Articles on the FMLA: How can an Employer use the Courts to Deny a Family Medical Leave Act Claim?