ADA: Reasonable Accommodations Have Limits

ADA ADAAA reasonable accommodations allergies Alabama Employment Law
The ADA only requires reasonable accommodations, not the accommodation of an employee’s choosing.

A recent decision from the Northern District of Alabama reinforces that the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) does not guarantee disabled employees an accommodation of their choosing.  Instead, accommodations offered by an employer only need to be “reasonable.” See Maddox v. ALDOT, No. 2:15-cv-00312-MHH, 2018 WL 3241212 (N.D. Ala. Jul. 3, 2018).

In Maddox, the employee suffered from allergies to dust and asphalt, and also worked for the Alabama Department of Transportation (“ALDOT”).  ALDOT provided numerous accommodations to Ms. Maddox.  ALDOT allowed her to leave work anytime asphalt fumes affected her breathing.  It provided an air purifier and replaced the air ventilation system in Ms. Maddox’s building.  ALDOT even relocated an asphalt lab to the rear of the building in which Ms. Maddox worked.  ALDOT also offered to transfer Ms. Maddox to a different office in Shelby County, but Ms. Maddox declined and requested a transfer to ALDOT’s main office in Montgomery.  However, the main office was undergoing mold remediation and ALDOT would only permit the transfer if her doctor stated that the main office would be a safe environment.  When Ms. Maddox’s doctor declined to issue such an opinion, she argued that ALDOT should allow her to take sick leave until a clean-air environment could be created.  ALDOT declined to provide such leave.

Ms. Maddox sued under the ADA claiming that ALDOT failed to provide a reasonable accommodation for her alleged disability.  For purposes of deciding the case, United States District Court Judge Madeline Hughes Haikala assumed that the allergies amounted to a “disability” under the ADA.  Nevertheless, Judge Haikala focused upon the fact that the ADA only requires “reasonable accommodations.”  Indeed, it is well-established that a qualified individual with a disability is “not entitled to the accommodation of her choice, but only a reasonable accommodation.”  Stewart v. Happy Herman’s Chesire Bridge, Inc., 117 F.3d 1278, 1286 (11th Cir. 1997).

Judge Haikala noted her sympathy with Ms. Maddox’s frustration, but held that the ADA “does not require an employee to create an environment completely free of fumes, dust, mold or other allergens to accommodate an employee’s health condition.”  Judge Haikala found that ALDOT’s proffered accommodations were reasonable; therefore, she dismissed Ms. Maddox’s case.

Maddox provides excellent guidance for employers struggling to accommodate employees’ health conditions.  In most cases, employers should follow ALDOT’s lead and attempt to find some solution/accommodation for the employees’ health issues.  But, at some point, requested accommodations cross the line from “reasonable” to unreasonable.  In those cases, the employer’s other efforts to provide reasonable accommodations can help prove that the employee’s requested accommodation is not reasonable.

****For lawyers/lovers of the law****  Maddox was decided under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.  In employment cases, the standards of the Rehabilitation Act are the same as the standards applied under Title I of the ADA.


Is Working From Home a Reasonable Accommodation?

ADA reasonable accommodation work from home alabama employment law
Sometimes, working from home is not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently found that an employer was not required to allow an employee to work from home as a reasonable accommodation for her pregnancy/disability.  Everett v. Grady Memorial Hosp. Corp., No. 16-13495, 2017 WL 3485226 (11th Cir. Aug. 15, 2017).

At the outset, let me stress that the reasonable accommodation analysis under the Americans with Disabilities Act is a case-by-case determination.  The Eleventh Circuit’s ruling in Everett depends on the specific facts of that case.  In other cases, involving other jobs, work-from-home might be a reasonable accommodation.  If one of your employees suffers from an impairment and asks to work from home, proceed very carefully.

In Everett, Ana Everett was employed as the Program Manager for Grady Memorial Hospital’s car seat program.  She was diagnosed with a high-risk pregnancy in February 2015 and granted FMLA intermittent leave at that time.  On April 28, 2015, Ms. Everett presented a doctor’s note placing her on “light duty.”  In May 2015, her doctor diagnosed her with an “incompetent cervix” and said she should work exclusively from home.  Grady refused to allow Ms. Everett to work from home.  Instead, Grady placed her on unpaid leave until her doctor allowed her to return to work on October 8, 2015.

Ms. Everett asserted several claims against Grady — including a claim for failure to accommodate her pregnancy/disability because she was not allowed to work from home.  This is where the fact-intensive nature of the accommodation analysis comes into play.  The issue was whether Ms. Everett could perform the essential functions of her job if she worked from home.  In short, the Eleventh Circuit reviewed the relevant facts and found that teaching courses, supervising employees and meeting with patients were essential functions of the job.  Ms. Everett could not perform those essential functions if she worked from home.

Ms. Everett argued that Grady could assign those job duties to another employee as a reasonable accommodation, but the Eleventh Circuit rejected that argument.  “‘[T]he ADA does not require the employee to eliminate an essential function of the plaintiff’s job’ or place it upon someone else.”  Everett, 2017 WL 3485226 at *5.

Again, the Eleventh Circuit’s decision in Everett relied upon the fact that Ms. Everett’s presence at the work site was crucial to teach courses, supervise employees and meet with patients.  In other cases, particularly in those involving computer-intensive jobs, it might be reasonable to allow an employee with an impairment to work from home.

ADA: “Maximum Leave” Policy Costs UPS $1.7 Million

ADA medical leave reasonable accommodation
Inflexible medical leave policies may violate the ADA’s reasonable accommodation requirement.

An article from Bloomberg reports that United Parcel Service recently agreed to pay $1.7 million to settle a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act:  UPS to Pay $1.7M

The EEOC filed a nationwide lawsuit challenging UPS’s policy of discharging workers who could not return from medical leave after 12 months.  The case was filed in Illinois, so it is not directly applicable to cases filed in Alabama.  Nevertheless, it appears to demonstrate the dangers of inflexible medical leave policies.  While I have not delved into the details of the UPS lawsuit, the Bloomberg article suggests that all employees were terminated after 12 months of medical leave.  Potentially, UPS should have engaged in the reasonable accommodation process and determined if employees could return to work, for example, in 13 months.  Clearly, the EEOC would view an additional month of medical leave as a reasonable accommodation.  Indeed, the EEOC’s resource document on employer-provided leave supports that position:  EEOC:  Employer-Provided Leave

Inflexible leave policies certainly pose dangers for employers under the ADA.  Thus, each request for leave should be dealt with on an individualized basis.   In the Eleventh Circuit, if an employee has exhausted their employer-provided leave, and cannot return in the “present or immediate future,” an indefinite extension of leave is not required under the ADA.  I previously wrote about this issue here:  ADA:  Indefinite Extension of Leave Not Required.  In summary, inflexible policies on return from leave can lead to liability, but employers are not required to provide indefinite leave as a reasonable accommodation.

Job-Competition Policy Can Be a Defense to ADA

Reasonable accommodation competition ADA
Employers Can Require Disabled Employees To Compete For Open Positions Without Violating Reasonable Accommodation Requirements

On Wednesday, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) does not require employers to forego a job-competition policy as part of the reasonable accommodation process for disabled employees.  See EEOC v. St. Joseph’s Hosp., No. 15-14551, 2016 WL 7131479 (11th Cir. Dec. 7, 2016).

In the St. Joseph’s case, Leokadia Bryk was a nurse in the psychiatric ward of St. Joseph’s hospital.  After 7 years on the job, spinal stenosis and a hip replacement caused her to use a cane for assistance walking.  The hospital found that the cane prevented her from performing the essential functions of her job, because psychiatric patients could use the cane as a weapon.

After making that safety determination, the hospital gave Ms. Bryk 30 days to identify and apply for other positions.  The hospital waived its typical internal transfer policy, which would have prohibited Bryk’s transfer, because she received a disciplinary warning. The hospital also made its Manager of Team Resources available to help Ms. Bryk with the process.

The hospital did not waive its policy which required internal applicants to compete for positions. Ms. Bryk applied for a position as an Education Specialist at the hospital and met the minimum requirements for the position.  Nevertheless, the managers hiring the Educational Specialist found that she was not the most qualified applicant and rejected her application.  The hospital terminated Ms. Bryk’s employment when she did not obtain another internal job at the hospital.

The EEOC sued for Ms. Bryk and argued that the reasonable accommodation requirements of the ADA required noncompetitive reassignment of Ms. Bryk to the Education Specialist position because she met the minimum requirements for the job.  The Eleventh Circuit disagreed, finding that “the ADA does not require reassignment without competition for, or preferential treatment of, the disabled.”  St. Joseph’s, 2016 WL 7131479 at *8.  “Passing over the best-qualified applicants in favor of less-qualified ones is not a reasonable way to promote efficiency or good performance.  In the case of hospitals, which is this case, the well-being and even the lives of patients can depend on having the best-qualified personnel.”  Id. at *9.

The Eleventh Circuit left open a small possibility that “special circumstances” might require waiver of a job-competition policy, but did not find any such circumstances in Ms. Bryk’s case.  Thus, St. Joseph’s provides some assurance to employers that, in most cases, they will not violate the ADA’s reasonable accommodation policies by requiring disabled employees to comply with a job-competition policy.