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Medical conditions complicate both personal and professional life, and can adversely affect work performance in myriad ways: You may be falling asleep at work, unable to concentrate on tasks, more irritable or operating at a slower pace. At least initially, you may not be able to identify the specific cause of your declining performance. Still, if you believe a health condition is affecting your ability to work, there are some things you can do to protect your job while you and your doctor clarify the medical problem. A recent court decision involving the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) highlights how employees with medical conditions are legally protected and provides helpful lessons you can take away from the case.

Employer Violated the ADA When It Terminated an Employee with Undiagnosed Narcolepsy

A recent Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decision, Spurling v. C&M Fine Pack, Inc., No. 13-1708 (7th Cir. Jan. 13, 2014), addresses an employer’s obligations once it learns an employee’s performance problems “might be related to a medical condition.” In this case, Kimberly Spurling, a third-shift inspector/packer for C&M Fine Pack, Inc., displayed a pattern of drowsiness and decreased alertness during her work shifts. C&M instituted progressive discipline, and on February 15, 2010, Spurling received a Final Warning/Suspension for falling asleep in the restroom. Subsequently, her doctors provided notes explaining her erratic sleep problems may be related to a medical condition. Despite paperwork from her doctor indicating he believed Spurling had a disability covered under the ADA, C&M terminated Spurling. Approximately one month after termination, Spurling received a definitive diagnosis of narcolepsy, which is manageable with proper medication.

The district court held C&M did not discriminate against Spurling since C&M recommended Spurling for termination prior to knowing of her disability. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding C&M actually terminated Spurling after it knew she had a medical condition covered under the ADA. C&M could not simply “turn a blind eye” to Spurling’s doctor’s note and terminate her. It should have refrained from discipline and instead worked with Spurling to determine whether there was a reasonable accommodation it could provide her.

Four Key Points Wisconsin Employees Can Take Away from the Spurling Case

1. Inform Your Employer of Your Medical Conditions In Writing Immediately

Spurling succeeded in her case because she told her supervisors her performance problems might be related to a medical condition. Had she remained silent about her health prior to her termination, C&M’s conduct would have been legal, as an employer cannot accommodate a disability it does not know about. Thus, if you believe your medical condition may have some impact on your work, you must notify your employer, preferably in writing, to invoke the ADA’s protection.

2. You Do Not Need a Specific Diagnosis

Initially, Spurling did not know definitively why she was falling asleep on the job. Her behavior was unusual for her, and her doctors opined it was related to her prescription medications. When Spurling submitted her ADA paperwork, her doctor noted an additional medical work up was in progress. Still, this was sufficient to trigger the employer’s obligations under the ADA. Don’t wait until your doctors know the cause of your symptoms definitively. Provide the medical information available to you as soon as it is available.

3. You Do Not Lose Protection as a Result of Prior Discipline

Once C&M knew a potential disability was causing Spurling’s performance problems, it was required to halt the progressive discipline process. All hope is not lost if discipline is in the works. As long as you provide notice of your disability prior to the employer’s “unequivocal notice of termination,” you may still have protection under the ADA.

4. Your Employer Must Engage with You to Determine if an Accommodation is Available

Finally, in Spurling’s case, C&M went wrong by failing to engage her in an interactive process once it knew of her disability. Instead of attempting to find a reasonable accommodation for her, it took the “aggressive approach” and moved full speed ahead with her termination. Under the ADA, employers are required to engage in the interactive process with employees in good faith. This means the employer should work with you to obtain the medical information it needs and to provide an appropriate accommodation if one exists.

If your health condition is making it difficult for you to perform your job duties, and you would like legal advice, please contact the attorneys at Hawks Quindel, S.C. We can help create a strategic action plan, based on Wisconsin employment law, to put you in a strong legal position as you find ways to adapt your employment situation to your medical condition.