Spider Bite Opens Up Major Wound for City

Reminding us of the importance of lawful employment policies (and sticking to them!), the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee recently decided that an African-American former employee may proceed with his Title VII retaliation and ADA failure to accommodate claims against the City of Lewisburg, Tennessee.  La’Monn Harris v. The City of Lewisburg, Tennessee et al, No. 1:15-cv-00114, 2017 BL 265703 (M.D. Tenn. July 31, 2017).

In 2011, the City hired La’Monn Harris as a Laborer.  Beginning about 2014, Harris began working under supervisor, Buck Beard.  The two had a tumultuous working relationship, with Harris often complaining about assignments and Beard issuing several “supervisory notes to file” in response.  These notes were not consistent with the City’s progressive discipline policy.

In February 2015, after an inappropriate phone call between the two, Beard recommended Harris be fired.  The City prepared a notice of termination.  The following day, Harris complained to the City Council, citing Beard’s “disparate and harassing treatment” of him based on Beard’s cursing and “name-calling” that created a “hostile work environment.”  As a result of Harris’s complaint, the City decided not to give Harris the termination notice.

Then, in May 2015, Harris suffered a spider bite which became infected and caused him to need several months off work.  The City had no policy regarding the ADA or how to request accommodations under the ADA.  Rather, the City’s policy regarding medical leave required injured employees to “have a 100% release from their doctor without restrictions” before returning to work.

In any event, Harris was approved for medical leave as a result of the spider bite.  In July 2015, Harris submitted several requests to return to work with restrictions.  The City did not discuss with Harris his ability to perform his essential duties.  Instead, it denied Harris’s requests to return to work with restrictions under the “100% healed policy.”  After Harris finally returned, he had another altercation with Beard and was terminated on July 23.

Harris filed suit alleging a variety of claims, including failure to accommodate under the ADA and retaliation under Title VII.

In a decision on July 31, 2017, the court found that the City failed to accommodate Harris’s requests for accommodations under the ADA.  As to this claim, the court found that the City failed to engage in the interactive process after Harris submitted at least three proposals to return to work with accommodations by not discussing with Harris whether he could perform his essential functions.  Furthermore, the court pointed out that the City’s “100% healed” policy is a per se violation of the ADA.

The court also found sufficient evidence that the City retaliated against Harris in violation of Title VII.  First, it found that Harris’s complaint to the City Council was protected activity because of his assertions that the Council was “under the impression” that his complaint referred to unlawful discrimination.  Although the City tried to argue there was no causal connection between Harris’s complaint and termination – which did not actually occur until he returned from medical leave five months later – the court found no evidence that the City’s prior decision to terminate Harris at the time he made the complaint had ever changed.  Noting that the City failed to follow its own progressive discipline policy, the court permitted Harris’s Title VII retaliation claim to proceed.

Had the City developed a proper policy for requesting accommodation under the ADA, engaged in a meaningful dialogue with Harris as to possible reasonable accommodations,  and complied with its progressive discipline policy, it might have taken sufficient steps to protect itself from liability.  The moral of the story here?  Employers should strive to have lawful employment policies and adhere to them.

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