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AT&T Didn't Violate ADA for Firing Employee With Depression

By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on
A company lawfully fired a woman suffering from depression and anxiety because she was not qualified to do her job, a federal appeals court ruled.

The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a judgment against a woman who sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act after her employer fired her for excessive absenteeism. Kirsten Williams, who went months without reporting for work, blamed her absences on depression and anxiety attacks. The appellate court said she had no case because she could not do her job.

"In the end, this case reflects the reality that there are some jobs that a person with disabilities is simply unable to perform," the unanimous panel said. "A blind person cannot be an airline pilot, nor can one with advanced Parkinson's disease be a neurosurgeon."

Please Hold

Williams worked for AT&T from 2006 until she was terminated in 2014. She worked at a call center, where her job duties included answering incoming calls and assisting customers with technical-support and billing issues.

Call center workers typically handled about 40 to 50 calls during each shift. If a worker did not report for work, the calls fell to others, increasing customer wait times and decreasing the quality of customer service.

Williams struggled with attendance throughout her employment, receiving warnings each year because she accumulated too many points under the company's attendance policy. She used a combination of disability and family leave to cover her absences, but she repeatedly failed to provide sufficient documentation to justify her leaves and only sporadically returned to work.

In April 9, 2014, Williams stopped going to work again. After sending her notices to return in three successive months, the company fired her for excessive absences on July 3, 2014. She responded by filing suit for disability discrimination in federal court.

Not Qualified

A trial judge granted the company's motion for summary judgment, concluding that AT&T had done everything it could to accommodate Williams. She had asked for more accommodations -- such as more breaks, time off and the discretion to work when she chose -- but the judge said her requests were unreasonable.

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit agreed. The judges also said Williams did not qualify for the job because of her absenteeism -- not her depression. Her doctors said she was not fit for work for significant periods of time.

"Williams admitted in her deposition that she had no way of predicting when her anxiety attacks would occur or how many attacks she would have per day," the court said in affirming. "Breaks every two hours would therefore be inadequate if Williams suffered from an anxiety attack in between scheduled breaks."

The trial court also ruled that Williams' depression and anxiety were disabilities under the ADA, and the appeals court did not disturb that ruling.

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