A recent Ninth Circuit Order in the matter Adams v. Maricopa County, CV-19-05253-PHX-MTL, 2020 WL 6383248 (D. Ariz. Oct. 30, 2020), granted the Maricopa County Public Defender’s Office Motion for Summary Judgment, dismissing a plaintiff’s discrimination claim as untimely. While the case has yet to be officially published, the entered order sheds light on the significance of an employee’s prompt reporting of disability-related limitations and request for timely accommodation.
In September 2019, plaintiff Kristi Adams, an attorney in the Maricopa County’s Office of the Public Defender, filed a lawsuit against her employer asserting claims of discrimination based on disability and failure to reasonably accommodate under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (“ADA”) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“Rehabilitation Act”). Plaintiff’s lawsuit sought economic damages and compensatory damages for mental anguish, emotional distress and other losses.
In August 2018, plaintiff received a full release to return to work on “full duty” and with “no restrictions” from her psychiatrist, following a leave of absence under the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) to adjust to medication changes. Her psychiatrist made no mention of plaintiff’s disability and did not state she would not be able to work without accommodations. Two days after her return to work, plaintiff had two inappropriate interactions with management staff. She was then placed on administrative leave while “her behavior was being investigated.” (Id. at 1.) In February 2018, the Maricopa County Public Defender sent plaintiff a Termination Letter outlining facts in support of its decision. In response to the letter, plaintiff sent her own letter claiming she suffers from, “among other conditions, Bi-Polar Disorder 1 (‘BPD’) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (‘PTSD’), with which she was first diagnosed in 1990” and requesting accommodations. (Id. at 1.) This was the first time plaintiff raised the issue of her disabilities and request for accommodations with the County.
The County filed a Motion for Summary Judgement as to all claims, asserting plaintiff’s termination was based on “misbehavior that violated standards of conduct requiring courteous treatment of employees and staff.” (Id. at 3.) Further, the County asserted the termination decision “was not based on any alleged disability and Plaintiff was not owed any accommodation.” (Id. at 3.) Plaintiff contended she was disabled and alleged her termination was the result of her disabilities, which the County failed to accommodate. In response to the County’s motion, U.S. District Judge Michael T. Liburdi granted summary judgment, holding that the County had outlined a history of plaintiff’s disruptive behavior over the span of twenty years and only received requests for her disability accommodations upon her termination.
The Court did find plaintiff indeed met her burden of proving her disability under the ADA. Nevertheless, Judge Liburdi found that the County did not discriminate against or fail to accommodate plaintiff under the law because the County was not aware of her disabilities, and her accommodation requests were too late. Rather, the County was only made aware of plaintiff’s disability after-the-fact, i.e., after plaintiff received the County’s termination letter that outlined twenty years’ worth of plaintiff’s disruptive behavior. Contrary to plaintiff’s contention, plaintiff was solely fired for “misbehavior that violated standards of conduct requiring courteous treatment of employees and staff.” (Id. at 3.) Notably, the decision states, “the court interprets [plaintiff’s] argument to be this: because of her post-hoc notice of disability and request for accommodations, she was excused of all past violations of county policy and is entitled to avoid termination. That is not supported by substantive law.” (Id. at 7.)
Following the decision, the attorney for the County stated, “the decision recognizes the importance of an employer’s ability to effectuate reasonable discipline where an employee has denied having any disability-related limitations and failed to seek timely accommodation.”  In this case, Plaintiff had assured the office’s human relations manager there was no medical reason that she could not perform the essential functions of her position. In other words, it was impossible for the County to discriminate against plaintiff without actual notice of her disabilities.
Notwithstanding plaintiff’s legitimate disabilities, she had ample opportunity to notify the County of her limitations but failed to do so. As such, the County’s decision to terminate plaintiff despite her decades of service and legitimacy of her disabilities was not consequential in light of her deferred notice. In the eyes of the law, the County’s response to plaintiff’s behavior was not only judicious, but warranted.