How would you cope personally, if you were suddenly injured and lost the use of your legs? How would your company cope as a business, if a top executive suffered a debilitating accident, putting her out on disability leave for months and permanently restricting her to a wheelchair?
For United Process Controls (UPC), a furnace equipment manufacturer with plants in Ohio, Wisconsin and China, the situation became more than hypothetical in September of 2015, when Vice President of Operations Eric Boltz suffered a bicycling accident that left him a paraplegic. His physician certified him “currently unable to work at all,” but opined that he could return to office/management work in four-to-six months.
UPC initially provided Boltz with a paid leave of absence and disability benefits, but just seven weeks after the injury UPC President Paul Oleszkiewicz met with Boltz at his home and admittedly asked him “how he could lead the company from a wheelchair.” The President – apparently unrestrained by any legal or human resources advice — further admitted saying to Boltz that he thought it would be “difficult” for him to return because “a leader has to do sales and be the face of the company.” Boltz responded that his leadership “came from his brain, not from legs,” and that he could do the job from home and then eventually return to the office.
A series of rather unfriendly communications followed, including UPC terminating Boltz’s wife (a company vice president), and UPC refusing to allow Boltz to work from home, rejecting a November 24 partial release from Boltz’s doctor. The President – often an employer’s worst witness in employment cases – wrote Boltz that “the Company [did] not believe it [was] appropriate, or healthy” for Boltz to try to return to work, and later insisted that he must be released to work “in the office” and “full-time” in order to resume his duties.
Boltz resigned December 30, 2015, claiming he would have faced a “toxic environment” if he tried to return to work, and that due to his “life-changing injury . . . I do not believe my physical and mental health could withstand working under these conditions.” He claimed to be constructively discharged, and filed suit for disability discrimination and retaliation.
In denying UPC’s motion for summary judgment on Boltz’s claims, a federal judge in Ohio rejected the company’s contention that it had established regular, in-office attendance as an essential function of the job. She noted that Boltz frequently worked from home before the injury, and that federal regulations specifically identify part-time or modified work schedules as potential reasonable accommodations. As for Boltz’s constructive discharge claim, the court noted that where “the handwriting was on the wall and the axe was about to fall,” an employee who resigns before being fired can claim a constructive discharge. She also found “most troubling” the President’s questioning of Boltz about whether he could lead from his wheelchair.
So what have we learned?
Rule 1: Do not allow C-suite executives to have return-to-work communications with disabled colleagues without legal or human resources guidance. What may have seemed “common sense” to the powerful President (asking how Boltz could lead from his wheelchair) turned out to be the “most troubling” evidence of unlawful discrimination.
Rule 2: The duty to accommodate disabled employees extends to high-level executives. Although it may seem an undue hardship to permit such an executive to be out on disability leave for months, the law views such temporary leaves and part-time schedules as reasonable accommodations. Therefore, an individualized analysis is required.
Rule 3: On-site attendance is not a per se requirement of every job, even at the executive level. Before the injury, Boltz often worked from home. His job description did not expressly require in-office attendance. And he put on evidence that his job mostly entailed managing operations and people remotely by phone and email. If a company believes on-site attendance is essential, it needs to put that in the job description, be able to justify the requirement if challenged, and not allow the employee to frequently work from home when healthy. But beware that recent court decisions are holding employers to a higher standard in justifying the need to work from the office, as technological advances have increased mobile productivity.
Michael Homans is a Labor & Employment attorney and founding partner of HomansPeck LLC. For more employment law updates, including news and links to important information pertaining to legal developments that may affect your business, subscribe to Michael’s blog, or follow him on Twitter @EmployLawUpdate.