Machinist Can't Manufacture ADA Claims, 5th Cir. Says

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By Patrick Dorrian

May 27 — A former machinist for a Texas oilfield drilling pipe company didn't show his termination following a weeklong absence for medical testing was disabilities discrimination, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held ( Delaval v. PTech Drilling Tubulars, LLC , 2016 BL 168721, 5th Cir., No. 15-20471, 5/26/16 ).

Danny Delaval failed to produce evidence that PTech Drilling Tubulars LLC's reason for firing him—violation of its attendance policy—was a cover for disability-based bias, the court ruled May 26. He also didn't establish that he put the company on notice he needed the week off as an accommodation for his condition, it said.

Judge Leslie H. Southwick found the machinist failed to show he responded to PTech's request for medical documentation substantiating that he was taking the time off to undergo medical testing. As a result, Delaval caused a breakdown in the interactive process required by the Americans with Disabilities Act for finding a suitable job accommodation for a disabled worker and thus couldn't make out an ADA failure-to-accommodate claim, the judge said.

The decision reaffirms that under the ADA and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's enforcement guidance, employers are allowed to ask an employee to produce documentation to substantiate that a claimed medical impairment requires accommodation and don't have to simply take the employee's word for it.

E-Mails With Owner Not Enough

Delaval worked as a manual machinist at PTech's Conroe, Texas, facility. In March 2014, he told his supervisor he had health problems and would be undergoing medical testing.

He subsequently exchanged e-mails with company owner Murray Dallas March 14 and 17, with Delaval saying he needed to use any days off or vacation time he had available and Dallas responding that Delaval should get some rest and proper medical treatment.

On March 18, Delaval e-mailed Dallas again to say he was cancer free, but had been diagnosed with an enlarged spleen and kidney stones. Dallas told Delaval to follow his doctor's orders and to keep PTech informed on what needs to be done. Dallas also indicated that he was leaving the country and would be out of contact until April 1.

Delaval returned to work March 25. His supervisor—Jesse Edwards—allegedly asked Delaval for medical documentation corroborating his absences, but according to Edwards, Delaval never did so. It was also disputed whether Delaval contacted anyone at PTech after his e-mail exchanges with Dallas, Southwick said.

The Fifth Circuit declined to address whether the e-mails between Delaval and Dallas established that Delaval requested and PTech granted his request for an ADA accommodation “in the form of a limited amount of time off for medical testing.”

Instead, assuming that the ADA's interactive process had been triggered, it found that the case turned on Delaval's failure to show he provided Edwards with the requested doctor's note.

“Where an employee refuses to provide such documentation, we have held that he causes a breakdown in the interactive process that may preclude an employer’s liability,” Southwick wrote. The only medical document Delaval produced was created one month after he was fired, she said.

The e-mails between Delaval and Dallas also didn't save Delaval's discriminatory discharge claim, the court added. It said the e-mails may have been enough to raise a jury issue as to “whether any of Delaval’s absences were authorized,” but they didn't show that PTech’s stated reason for firing him was a pretext for disability discrimination.

Judges Carolyn Dineen King and Catharina Haynes joined the opinion.

Law Offices of David C. Holmes represented Delaval. Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, P.C. represented PTech.

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick Dorrian in Washington at pdorrian@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at smcgolrick@bna.com