Tennessee Court of Appeals Upholds Summary Judgment Ruling Against Employee Who Sought Reasonable Accommodation Under the Tennessee Disabilities Act

The Tennessee Court of Appeals at Jackson recently upheld a summary judgment motion against an employee who had claimed her employer retaliated and interfered with her leave in violation of the Tennessee Disabilities Act.

In Jones v. Sharp Electronics Corporation, Lataynia Jones was an employee at Sharp Electronics Corporation from 1996 until her termination in November 2009.  During her time of employment, she was a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and, like all union members, covered under a collective bargaining agreement.  The collective bargaining agreement granted employees 140 days of leave, including 56 in addition to the 12 weeks of leave permitted by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).  Jones was granted leave under the FMLA multiple times beginning September 2003.

In 2008, Jones took 11 days of leave in October, two weeks of leave in November, and then nearly two months from the end of November through January 19, 2009.  In September 2009, Jones requested additional leave under the FMLA, stating that she suffered from depression.  Her employer approved a leave time from September 20, 2009 through October 19, 2009.  However, Jones was advised that after October 19 her leave time under the FMLA would be exhausted, and that she had used 26 days of leave under the collective bargaining agreement.  Though she had 30 days of collective bargaining agreement leave remaining, Sharp informed Jones that she would be expected to return to work on October 20, and that any further leave would be at Sharp’s discretion. 

Jones’s physician then contacted Sharp and told the company that Jones was being treated by the Memphis Psychiatric Group and that it would be beneficial for her to be excused from work through November 13.  Sharp then sent a letter to Jones telling her that the leave had been approved, but she would be expected back at work on November 14, with just five days of leave remaining.  When Jones’s physician requested more time through December 15, Sharp informed Jones that her leave under both the FMLA and the collective bargaining agreement had been exhausted, and that she must return to work on November 19 or her employment could end.  When Jones did not return by that date, Sharp terminated her employment on November 24, 2009.

Jones filed a lawsuit in trial court, claiming that Sharp had retaliated against her for taking leave under the FMLA and the Tennessee Disabilities Act.  She requested front pay and benefits until she secured comparable employment, as well as back pay and other compensation.  Sharp filed a motion for summary judgment, claiming that Jones’s argument — that she had been denied reasonable accommodation when she was denied leave in excess of the FMLA time — held no weight because she did not have a disability under the Tennessee Disabilities Act and the Act did not have a reasonable accommodations requirement.

The trial court found that Sharp’s actions were appropriate, as the Tennessee Disabilities Act states that an employer cannot discriminate against an employee with a disability unless the disability to some degree prevented the employee from performing duties required by employment, or the quality of the employee’s performance.  Since Jones could not perform her duties while she was on leave, the trial court ruled in favor of Sharp.

The Tennessee Court of Appeals agreed, noting that while it may be an oversight for the Tennessee Disabilities Act to have no reasonable accommodation provision, that was a matter for the state General Assembly to address, not the court.

Parks, Chesin & Walbert represents plaintiffs in employment matters, including employment discrimination, wage and hour, FMLA, and more.  With offices in Atlanta and Nashville, we offer a client-centered philosophy and strive to accomplish our clients’ goals as if they are our own.  If you live in Georgia or Tennessee and need an experienced Atlanta employment law attorney, contact us today at 404-873-8048.

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