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Scopelitis Labor & Employment eNewsletter: A Note About Disability Accommodation and Retaliation Claims

by A. Jack Finklea, David D. Robinson

September 6, 2018

 

A Note About Disability Accommodation and Retaliation Claims

When discussing disability issues in the workplace, the phrase “reasonable accommodation” is frequently used, yet hard to pin down in a practical sense. Rather, employers are left wondering when the obligation arises and how far employers must go to avoid legal jeopardy. A new case from the 7th Circuit (the federal jurisdiction covering Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin) provides some assistance.

In the case, an employee claimed her knee surgeries rendered her a qualified person with a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”), her multiple requests for reasonable accommodation were refused, and she was discharged in retaliation for requesting reasonable accommodation. The employer, a large package delivery company, denied the allegations and requested that the claims be dismissed. The Court denied the employer’s request and ordered a trial, allowing a jury to decide the matter.

Lesson No. 1: An employee may have a disability even if her doctor has released her to return to work without restrictions. The employer argued the doctor’s release foreclosed the employee from satisfying her first burden of proof – to show she was “disabled” under the ADA. The Court rejected the contention, noting that a disability can arise from substantial limitations in walking, standing, squatting and kneeling. Because the employee provided facts supporting such limitations, a jury would have to decide whether she was disabled under the ADA.

Lesson No. 2: Employers must engage in an interactive process to determine whether a reasonable accommodation exists for a disability.  The employee requested (1) training on data entry and forklift operation in order to limit time spent on her feet, (2) use of the first floor managers’ bathroom to avoid having to climb stairs to the normal bathroom, and (3) permission to leave the building during breaks (as opposed to climbing the stairs to the second floor break room) in order to elevate and ice her knees. Although the employer was not necessarily required to agree to each of the employee’s requests, the employer was not entitled to ignore the requests.

Lesson No. 3:  Coming down hard on an employee who has requested reasonable accommodation will support a retaliation claim even if it turns out that the employee does not have a qualifying disability. The employer argued the employee was discharged for displaying a taser gun while leaving the facility in violation of the employer’s workplace violence policy. The Court held a jury could reasonably determine the employer’s stated reason was false based on the timing of the discharge, evidence of unevenly applying work rules to the employee, and additional evidence suggesting the employee was merely preparing for the long, dark walk to her car at the end of her shift as she had done every shift for the last 10 years.

Reasonable accommodation requests and the interactive process can undeniably become burdensome and disruptive, particularly when an employer doubts that an actual disability exists. Level-headed evaluation and a reasoned approach to the process is nevertheless key in avoiding a lengthy and expensive trial, and, ultimately, liability.  We are happy to walk through the process with you.  For questions contact Jack Finklea at jfinklea@scopelitis.com or David Robinson at drobinson@scopelitis.com.   

 

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Scopelitis practice area newsletters are intended as reports to our clients and friends on developments affecting the transportation industry. The published material does not constitute an exhaustive legal study and should not be regarded or relied upon as individual legal advice or opinion.

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