A New York federal court recently dismissed a lawsuit filed by Cuttino Mobley against the New York Knicks. Mobley, a ten-year veteran of the NBA, claimed that the Knicks discriminated against him because he suffers from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a potentially-fatal condition which causes thickening of the wall of the heart.
Mobley argued that the Knicks unlawfully released him after learning about his heart condition. According to Mobley, he could safely perform the essential functions of his job as a basketball player, and to him this was proven because he had done so for the past ten years (while he was apparently already afflicted with the heart condition ). However, the Knicks sent Mobley to see two cardiologists, and both doctors determined that it was not safe for Mobley to play basketball with his heart condition. To the Knicks, this meant he was not qualified to perform the essential functions of his job.
Ultimately, the court in this case agreed with the Knicks and dismissed the lawsuit. Among other reasons, the court dismissed the lawsuit because Mobley failed to allege or present any evidence to refute the conclusions of the cardiologists that it would not be safe for Mobley to play professional basketball.
This case is interesting because it reminds us that professional athletes are subject to the same workplace discrimination laws as everyone else. In this case, the New York Knicks decided that the team could not reasonably accommodate an employee’s serious heart condition because of his job duties – those of a professional basketball player. Importantly, the Knicks made this decision the same way every careful employer should consider doing it: by sending Mobley to get an independent medical examination (in this case, two exams), which confirmed that Mobley could not safely play basketball.
The lesson for employers is clear. If you make an employment decision because of an employee’s medical condition, you need to have a really good reason, preferably supported by strong (if not unassailable) medical evidence. Here, the Knicks were concerned that Mobley could seriously injure himself (or die) if he continued to play basketball. That reason was supported by independent doctors and thus was good enough for the court. As a result, the Knicks prevailed in the lawsuit. (Now, if only they could win enough games to satisfy their fans…)
What do you think about this decision? Should the Knicks have given Mobley a chance to play? Can you think of any reasonable accommodation that the Knicks might have been able to offer Mobley? While you likely do not have any professional basketball players working at your company, the analysis for every employee is the same – if an employee has a medical condition that affects the performance of his or her job, can she perform the essential functions with or without a reasonable accommodation? If the Knicks can figure this out, so can your company.