In a recent decision, the US District Court for the Southern District of Ohio rejected ADA claims against JPMorgan Chase, finding that the company had reasonably accommodated the plaintiff during an extended period that included both intermittent and continuous FMLA leave. Johnson v. JPMorgan Chase & Co. No. 2:11-cv-00373-EAS-EPD (S.D. Ohio, February 6, 2013).
J.P. Morgan employed William R. Johnson (Johnson) as a financial services advisor. Johnson is a large man, standing 6'11" inches tall and weighing well over 300 pounds. In his role as a financial services advisor, Johnson generally sat for 10 hour shifts at a time speaking with customers on the telephone.
In his Complaint, Johnson alleged that that he began experiencing neck pain in September 2002 while training for his position. During his deposition, Johnson stated that he was unable to perform many household duties due to his condition. Additionally, Johnson stated that he suffered from memory lapses because he is unable to sleep due to his neck pain. He alleged that he first brought his neck pain to the attention of his supervisor, at that time Rachel White, in January 2003. According to Johnson, he informed White that he was having “tremendous pain in (his) neck and upper shoulder” and that he needed a larger chair. In response, White arranged for Johnson to receive a new chair with the assistance of Operations Manager Bruce Ostermeyer. According to White, Johnson pointed out to her the specific chair that he wanted and several months later, the chair arrived.
Johnson claimed that he was not satisfied with the chair he received in 2003 because he felt that it was suited for an overweight person, but not a tall person. Johnson claimed he spoke to Ostermeyer about his need for a different chair fifteen to twenty times between May 2003 and February 2009. Johnson claimed that he specifically informed Ostermeyer that he required additional back and neck support. In addition to his chair requests, Johnson made requests involving his computer. Specifically, he requested a larger computer monitor due to his vision, claiming that his trouble viewing the monitor caused him to lean back and forth during the day, further aggravating his neck problems.
In her deposition, White recalled that Johnson made a request concerning his computer monitor, she did not recall him indicating that he needed to lean forward to see his computer screen. Rather, White recalled generally that Johnson had trouble seeing his computer due to his vision. In May 2005, having not received a larger monitor, Johnson alleged that he submitted medical documentation from an optometrist to support his request for a larger monitor. With his supervisor’s permission, Johnson was able to temporarily obtain a larger monitor around the fall of 2005, and he was able to permanently obtain a larger monitor by trading with a coworker in the spring of 2006. During the same general time frame, Johnson also began requesting a monitor riser for his computer screen because his current riser did not work. According to Johnson, he required a monitor riser so that he could stand, stretch, and move around while working.
Johnson began receiving chiropractic treatment in mid-2006. On September 20, 2006, he requested leave under the FMLA. Within his application, Johnson indicated that leave would be on an intermittent basis, as necessary, in response to “flareups” in his neck, arm, and wrist. An attached medical certification provided that Johnson’s neck pain was indicative of neuritis and that his condition commenced in August 2006. Johnson obtained FMLA leave on additional occasions during 2007, 2008, and 2009. Although some of Johnson’s leave requests during this period were for his neck condition, he also requested leave for different conditions including pneumonia and edema.
In February 2009, Johnson provided his supervisor with a note from his doctor stating that he “need(ed) to have an occupational work station evaluation to allow for better ergonomics due to his height and medical conditions.” Dianne Noel, an Occupational Health Nurse with J.P. Morgan, contacted Johnson regarding this request. On March 13, 2009, an ergonomic evaluator attempted to schedule Johnson for an appointment for March 20, 2009. Johnson cancelled this appointment because of FMLA leave. The evaluator attempted to re-schedule an evaluation for March 27, 2009, but Johnson was again unable to meet with her due to FMLA leave. In May 2009, the evaluator and Johnson exchanged emails in which they agreed that Johnson would contact her to set up a workplace assessment upon his return to work.
Johnson began receiving short-term disability benefits due to his neck pain in March 2009. In June and July 2009, two of Johnson’s physicians opined that Johnson’s work conditions aggravated his cervical spondylosis. Johnson received long-term disability benefits from September 2009 until April 2010. Following termination of his long-term disability leave, J.P. Morgan allowed Johnson to engage in an unpaid internal job search. In August 2010, Johnson received a position allowing him to return as a financial service advisor. In late August 2010, prior to his return to work, Johnson submitted a letter from his chiropractor stating that he needed accommodations for his back and neck. J.P. Morgan thereafter ordered a custom built chair for Johnson. This chair ultimately arrived on October 13, 2010. Johnson continues to work for J.P. Morgan as a senior financial advisor. In light of recommendations from his doctor; Johnson works four-hour shifts and gets up and walks around once every hour.
The Court’s Decision
Despite these accommodations, Johnson filed a lawsuit against J.P. Morgan in May 2011 alleging disability discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. (ADA) and Ohio’s anti-discrimination statute, Ohio Revised Code, § 4112.01 et seq. Additionally, Johnson brought a claim of wrongful adverse action in violation of Ohio public policy.
The court dismissed all of Johnson’s claims. First, it found that Johnson had failed to present any evidence that pre-2009, his neck issues qualified as a disability. The Court found that: “(f)or the period from 2003 to 2006, Johnson relies primarily, if not solely, on his subjective complaints of pain to establish disability. Johnson’s testimony regarding his pain, however, does not indicate that he was severely restricted in any major life activities at this time.” It further held that “(a)lthough Johnson’s FMLA leave documentation does indicate that he was suffering from severe neck pain beginning in 2006, the evidence provides limited detail regarding Johnson’s neck condition. At most, the medical evidence contains conclusory physician notes that Johnson’s neck pain would likely result in ‘incapacity’ (from work) on an intermittent basis because of ‘flare-ups.’”
Second, the court found that judgment as a matter of law was appropriate to the extent Johnson based his failure to accommodate claims on his post-2009 actions. Even assuming that Johnson established a triable issue as to disability and knowledge after 2009, he failed to establish that J.P. Morgan did not accommodate him during this period. Instead, the court found that the record reflected that beginning in 2009, J.P. Morgan was responsive to — and did not unreasonably delay — Johnson’s requests. As detailed above, Johnson submitted a request, through a doctor’s note, in February 2009 for an ergonomic evaluation of his workstation. During March 2009, a third party ergonomic evaluator that J.P. Morgan hired attempted to schedule the evaluation. Moreover, J.P. Morgan permitted Johnson to take leave and helped him obtain a new position when his disability period expired. Last, upon Johnson’s return to work in September 2010, J.P. Morgan provided him with reasonable accommodations. These actions amounted to reasonable accommodations post-2009.
Last, the court found that Johnson’s disability discrimination claim also failed as a matter of law. This claim focused on the failure of Johnson’s supervisors to adequately respond to his accommodation requests between 2003 and 2009. Nevertheless, for the reasons detailed above, Johnson failed to sufficiently demonstrate that — at least prior to 2009 — he was disabled and that his supervisors knew of his disability. For the same basic reasons, the evidence did not demonstrate that Johnson’s supervisors perceived him as disabled within the meaning of the ADA. Moreover, Johnson’s intermittent FMLA leave requests were not sufficient to establish a record of disability within the meaning of the ADA, so the court dismissed his claims.
The Johnson case demonstrates the fact specific nature of FMLA and ADA claims, and highlights the importance of adequately responding to an employee’s requests for accommodations, and engaging in the interactive process. Arent Fox’s Labor and Employment Group regularly counsels clients on FMLA and ADA matters. If you have any questions about any of these topics, please contact the authors or any other members of the group.