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War Story 109, Disabled Employee, Employment Practices Liability

Trevor Loomis, Managing Partner of Loomis CPA Firm, had always been known as a respected CPA and an all-around great guy to work for. In fact, the employees of the firm considered Trevor family and vice versa. Everyone in the firm enjoyed teasing each other, and all topics were fair game. Trevor would even disclose to new employees the teasing practice to make sure they were “on board.”

Carina Davis, one of Trevor’s best staff accountants, had worked for the firm for 11 years. Carina was always considered the “go to” person. Because of her tenure with the firm, she had all the answers, and the other employees had great respect for her.

Unfortunately, last year, Carina started experiencing chronic aches and fatigue. Her symptoms would come on suddenly, and on those mornings, she would call in sick with little or no notice to the firm. She shared with her boss, Trevor, that she was suffering from what was thought to be an autoimmune disorder. To help him better understand, she shared details of her symptoms.

Over a period of a few months her attendance became increasingly more sporadic, which created some challenges for the firm during busy season. Trevor remained extremely understanding and supportive of Carina’s situation and reallocated some of her workload to the other CPAs in the office so deadlines would be met. In keeping with the culture of the firm, however, Trevor would occasionally tease Carina when she was in the office, calling her a “hypochondriac” and a “whiner.” After all, everyone teased everyone, and all topics were fair game. Initially, Carina tried to ignore his comments, chalking it up to being part of a dysfunctional work family. Over time, though, she became frustrated and depressed. She felt targeted not only by Trevor’s comments in the office, but she even noticed a change in how other employees were treating her. In fact, she felt they were losing respect for her.

Trevor realized too late that he had let things go too far and had been the one to push them along. To “fix” the situation, Trevor shared with the other employees the specifics of Carina’s health issues. He had hoped that by sharing specifics, he would help the others be more sympathetic toward her. Subsequently, when Carina was in the office, her co-workers would Google her symptoms to “help” diagnose her illness. They also would share stories of friends and family who were suffering from symptoms like those Trevor had shared. Carina’s health condition had become the talk of the office. She felt embarrassed and humiliated, knowing that her coworkers were privy to her private health issues. She was not comfortable discussing her health issues at work and felt uncomfortable sharing those feelings. Her stress at work exacerbated her symptoms.

At the recommendation of her doctor, Carina eventually was placed on a medical leave of absence.

Select the one answer that is the best response to the following question:

1) What should the CPA (Trevor) do, now that Carina is on a medical leave of absence?

  1. Continue to support her and keep the other employees informed of any changes in her health.
  2. Ask her to come in to work on those days she feels better, because being on leave might add to her sense of feeling alienated and have a negative impact on her morale.
  3. If you have CAMICO’s Employment Practices Liability Insurance, contact CAMICO’s Loss Prevention department, or an employment attorney if you do not, to obtain risk management advice on how to move forward.
  4. A and C.


Answer A: Incorrect.

Continuing to support Carina is appropriate; however, her health issues are private. Even though she shared specifics with her boss, he is prohibited from requesting additional information unless the request involves the probable duration of the illness and any accommodations he should consider, per her physician. He most certainly should not share any information with other employees about her medical condition, as that is protected information.

Answer B: Incorrect:

Reaching out to an employee directly and encouraging them to work when they are on a medical leave is not appropriate. In this situation, since her physician feels that she can no longer work and has placed her on a medical leave of absence, the firm must abide by the physician’s directive. Disregarding the physician’s recommendation could put the employee and the firm at risk.

Answer C: Correct:

Seeking counsel from an expert can help the firm understand the options available to protect the rights of the employee as well as minimize the potential exposures to the firm. Also, don’t treat employees like family. If the bond in the office between management and employees is akin to family, the firm can be at risk. Partners and managers sharing personal experiences and feelings, using inappropriate language, or speaking about other employees can create a dysfunctional atmosphere. Friendly is fine; family is not.

Answer D: Incorrect; see Answer A.

“War Stories” are drawn from CAMICO claims files and illustrate some of the dangers and pitfalls in the accounting profession. All names have been changed.

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