It is not uncommon that right when an employer gets ready to discharge an employee, the employee divulges for the first time that the offending behavior is the result of a disability.
Many employees rush to divulge their medical condition in the belief that if they get the words out first, they cannot be let go. However, a recent Minnesota court decision seems to slam the lid on that sort of thinking.
Customer Complaint Flows From Employee’s Behavior
James Tyner’s job as a broadband technician for Century Link called for him to set up telephone, Internet, and television services for customers. Due to his diabetes, Tyner often had a sudden need to urinate and was not always able to locate and use a restroom in time. He therefore kept a bottle in his company van so that he could relieve himself if suitable facilities were not immediately available.
While pulling the van into a customer parking lot, Tyner needed to go and used the bottle while parked (unfortunately) next to the complex manager. The manager saw what was happening and complained by telephone to Tyner’s supervisor.
In a subsequent discussion, Tyner told his supervisor for the first time that he was diabetic and needed to urinate frequently. After further investigation, the company determined that Tyner’s conduct was unacceptable and terminated him for violation of their Code of Conduct and their Employee Handbook.
Tyner sued for disability discrimination under the Minnesota Human Rights Act claiming that Century Link had failed to accommodate him. He argued that he could have performed his job satisfactorily if the company allowed him to use a disposable urine relief bag or adult undergarments. The matter was then transferred to federal district court.
CenturyLink brought a motion for summary judgement (early dismissal) claiming that Tyner never requested an accommodation and therefore was not protected from termination for otherwise inappropriate behavior.
If the Decision is Made, Employer Need Not Hold It
Federal Judge Donovan Frank ruled in favor of Century Link and dismissed the claim. He first concluded that when Tyner informed his supervisor of his diabetes and the need to use the bottle for termination, he was merely explaining or justifying his behavior, not seeking an accommodation. Defending one’s self or asking for a second chance is not the same as a request for accommodation.
Even if Tyner had requested accommodation, Judge Frank determined that he failed to demonstrate the existence of an accommodation that would have allowed him to perform the essential functions of his job. His desire to use a relief bag was essentially no different than his past use of the bottle, neither of which would prevent him from having to relieve himself in public when the urge to urinate struck him.
As for the use of adult undergarments, Judge Frank explained first that since Tyner had never raised this subject with the company, they cannot be found to have denied him the use of those items.
Moreover, a request to wear adult undergarments was not actually a request for accommodation because it was completely up to Tyner to decide whether or not to wear them – he did not need his employer’s approval for that.
Finally, Judge Frank determined that even if Tyner’s actions could be construed as a request for accommodation, the request was not timely. The judge explained “An employer is not required to excuse past workplace misconduct even if it is the result of an employee’s disability.”
Certainly, employers must be sensitive and responsive to legitimate requests for accommodation and they should use an interactive process to make appropriate decisions. Moreover, if a disability results in behavior that warrants discipline but not termination, accommodation must be considered prospectively.
However, this case reaffirms that Minnesota employers can not be required to accommodate disabilities of which they are not aware, nor must they refrain from termination decisions simply because they finally learn of the disability after the terminable behavior occurred. If a decision has been made (and has been documented so that you can prove the decision was made before you learned of the disability), you should be good to go.