A church office manager has been slipping in job performance lately and has taken many days off for doctor’s appointments. When confronted by the supervisor, the employee admits to struggling at work due to life circumstances and feeling depressed. The supervisor warns the employee to improve job performance or else termination may be necessary. As time passes, the employee’s performance continues to decline. The employee takes more time off from work, and sends the church an email from her doctor requesting four weeks off to recover from depression. The church’s business administrator doubts the office can operate effectively for that long without the office manager. The next day, the church terminates her for poor job performance.
The church is sued by the office manager for disability discrimination and failing to accommodate her disability of chronic depression. In disbelief, the executive pastor of the church tells an employment attorney he did not know the employee was disabled and that the reason for termination was poor job performance. The church is surprised to hear that it could be found liable, even if it did not have actual knowledge of the office manager’s disability. Where did the church go wrong?
Disability discrimination is a growing and highly litigated area of employment law. In 2016, about a third of the charges filed by individuals with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) were for disability discrimination—the highest ever for this protected class. Of the protected classes (race, sex, national origin, color, age, and disability), disability accounted for the second highest amount of charges with the EEOC, falling just behind the class of race. In my experience, such claims often result from a lack of understanding by employers of their legal obligations. Below I address these legal obligations for churches and the landmines to avoid in order to prevent these types of claims.