by Lana L. Rupprecht, Esq. - Director and Product Compliance Counsel
March 27, 2023
The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, in the case, Winters v. Deere & Company, just issued a pro-employer decision. This case is an important resource for employers struggling with employees who display inappropriate conduct at work and who refuse accommodations.
The employee, Michael James Winters, worked for John Deere for over thirty years. Deere had previously granted Winters medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and otherwise due to his anxiety and depression. Winters returned to work with no restrictions in March of 2019. In May 2019, after Winters's supervisor declined a vacation request, Winters requested every Friday off for several months. Deere issued a written warning to Winters for his excessive "unplanned and unexcused absences."
Winters told his supervisor that he felt "like putting a gun to [his] head every morning." In response, Deere attempted to schedule a meeting between Winters and an occupational health physician and a psychiatrist and asked Winters to take paid leave. Winters went out on company permitted leave (presumably he no longer was eligible for FMLA) and returned again in September without restrictions. HR attempted to help Winters in his transition back to work and specifically asked him if there was anything he needed to assist him. In response, Winters did not ask for any type of accommodation.
After he returned, Winters met with his supervisor, who gave Winters negative job performance feedback. After the meeting, Winters confronted a coworker he blamed for the bad feedback.
On October 8, Winters asked for another meeting with his supervisor and during this meeting, Winters raised his voice and told his supervisor: "I will fight you to the end on this" and "it will not turn out good...for one of us." Winters later told HR that he didn't regret what he said to Morrison. Shortly thereafter, Deere terminated Winters' employment due to this conduct and prior performance and conduct issues. Winters sued claiming, among other things, disability discrimination and failure to accommodate his disability.
The 8th Circuit rejected Winters' failure to accommodate claim on the basis that Winters never requested an accommodation once he returned to work. It helped that Deere encouraged Winters to request an accommodation, and Winters failed to do so. The 8th Circuit found that even though Deere accommodated Winters in the past, it cannot be expected to "read [his] mind and know [he] secretly wanted a particular accommodation..."
The court also dismissed the disability discrimination claim. First, the court found Deere provided legitimate reasons for terminating Winters' employment: Winters' conduct on October 8, 2019, and a lack of remorse for it, inability to get along with coworkers, and history of performance and attendance issues. According to the court, Winters did not show these reasons were pretext for discrimination. The court rejected Winters' argument that Deere violated its own "policy" simply because it did not formally investigate the events of October 8. The court found that "No specific facts suggest that [Deere's] actions were more likely motivated by [disability] than by its proffered justification." Finally, the court rejected Winters' argument that his actions were not serious enough to merit termination and found that questioning an employer's judgment is not sufficient to show illegal discrimination.
Tips for Employers
Here are some important takeaways for this pro-employer case:
- If you have good reason to believe an employee may need an accommodation, inquire and document your efforts. Deere did this despite Winters' failure to request an accommodation, which was a big help in this lawsuit.
- Document all prior performance and conduct issues and take action based upon those issues only, not due to any underlying medical condition or disability. In this case, Deere was careful to spell out the reasons for the termination and they were based upon performance or conduct.
- And of course, always consult with Human Resources or your employment law attorney before making a termination decision, especially if the employee has previously taken and exhausted FMLA, has a prior medical condition and has returned to the workplace.
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