Does this sound familiar? Your employee hands you a note from his doctor stating, “Please excuse Josh from work from 3/18 through 4/20 when he will be reevaluated.” Often, doctor’s notes say little else, and many times you can’t read the doctor’s “handwriting” (I’ll use that term loosely).
As an employer, your next move depends on your company’s internal leave policies, whether the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) applies, and whether the employee has a “disability” or “handicap” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD). Even if the employee does not have PTO available and is not eligible for leave under the FMLA, the company may be required to afford an employee with a disability an unpaid leave of absence as a form of reasonable accommodation.
But what if all you have to go on is the nondescript doctor’s note, and the employee never gives any other indication that he has a disability, or that he is seeking any specific accommodation? Would terminating the employee under these circumstances expose the company to liability?
“No,” answered New Jersey’s Appellate Division in McLaurin v. General Nutrition Ctrs., Inc., 2017 N.J. Super Unpub. LEXIS 1279 (App. Div., May 25, 2017). In this recent unpublished opinion, the court upheld summary judgment for GNC and dismissed Joshua McLaurin’s claims of disability discrimination and failure to accommodate under the NJLAD. McLaurin, a former GNC store manager, apparently suffered from anxiety disorder and a right knee injury, but throughout the course of his employment he never informed anyone at GNC about his health issues. McLaurin claimed that by March 17, 2013, he was suffering from panic attacks twice a week and continued knee pain, but when he told his supervisor he needed to be off from work on March 18, 2013, he didn’t specify a medical reason. McLaurin remained out of work for several days, and on March 21, 2013, he submitted the above-described doctor’s note without further explanation. Nor did he authorize GNC human resources representatives to speak directly to his doctor to get clarification. Since McLaurin was not eligible for FMLA, GNC determined that he had “voluntarily resigned” for medical reasons, and indicated he would be eligible for re-hire when he was ready to return. McLaurin did not contact GNC to be re-hired, and instead filed his lawsuit.
In upholding the dismissal of McLaurin’s complaint, the Appellate Division relied on McLaurin’s procedural failures during the discovery phase of the lawsuit (i.e., he failed to produce to GNC medical documentation and any expert report that he would rely on at trial). Procedural problems aside, the court further concluded that the doctor’s note and record of McLaurin’s office visit on March 21, 2013, were not sufficient to establish that McLaurin had a “disability” under the NJLAD. The court also upheld dismissal of McLaurin’s “failure to accommodate” claim on the grounds that he “never affirmatively communicated to GNC that he was suffering, or had suffered, from a physical or mental health disability.” The court found that the doctor’s note “conveyed that plaintiff required a month off from work, but it did not make GNC aware of any physical or mental disability that required GNC to provide an accommodation under the LAD.”
There are a few interesting takeaways from this case. First, it is somewhat surprising that the court refused to find the existence of a “disability,” given the trend over the last several years of courts practically presuming this fact based on minimal evidence. Second, it is eye-opening that the court found that the employee’s act of producing a doctor’s note requesting time off (even if it said nothing else) did not trigger the employer’s duty to engage in the interactive process to find out more information.
Although McLaurin is non-binding, employers should take comfort in knowing that a bare-bones doctor’s note – with no other indications of the employee’s specific health issues – may not support a finding that an employee has a disability or a handicap under the NJLAD, and may not necessarily trigger the interactive process. Accommodation cases are always tricky, however, and each case turns on its own unique set of facts. For example, had Joshua McLaurin told his supervisor (or others at GNC) about his anxiety issues prior to requesting time off from work, the case might have turned out differently for him. For this reason, it is important for employers to have a plan of action to deal with medical leaves and accommodation issues, and to make sure their managers are trained appropriately.
If you have any questions about this post or any other related matters, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.