Human Resources News & Insights

When ADA accommodations go too far

These employees wanted very specific accommodations for their disabilities, and when they didn’t get them, they sued. Here’s why their companies came out on top.

‘I can do my job if other people do it for me’

Sue Bell worked as the cost controller/estimator for Hercules Liftboat Company for two-and-a-half years before she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

She had surgery, went on disability leave and returned to work cancer-free several months later.

The problem: She was on a five-year medication regimen that “made it, basically, impossible to work.”

Instead, she delegated all of her job responsibilities to two subordinate employees.

Six months later, the company decided to eliminate Bell’s position.

She turned around and sued, claiming the company fired her because of her disability. She also said she was completely capable of doing her job with the accommodation “of her underlings.”

Not so fast, said the court: Just because someone is physically able to return to work doesn’t mean he or she is qualified to perform his or her job.

Furthermore, the court cited a circuit court decision from 1998 that said, “if [an employee] can’t perform the essential functions of [her] job absent assigning those duties to someone else . . . [she] cannot be reasonably accommodated as a matter of law.”

Case closed.

Magdalen Blessey Bickford and Susan Fahey Desmond, writing for Jackson Lewis LLP, broke down what the case means to HR:

The decision underscores that despite the broad focus of the ADA’s interpretation of who meets the definition of disability, the individual still must be able to perform the essential functions of the position. It is always unreasonable to require others to perform the essential functions of a position that a disabled individual cannot perform.

The case is Bell v. Hercules Liftboat Company, LLC.

Staffer: Accommodations weren’t fast enough

After a year as a project manager for the city of Indianapolis, Nancie Cloe was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

After some time off, her doctor allowed her to return to work part-time, though she was restricted to desk duty.

Because it was difficult for her to walk, Cloe asked the company for two things: a printer in her office and a preferred parking pass.

According to court documents, the city installed a printer in Cloe’s office two to four weeks after she filed her request.

Cloe also requested a parking space close to her building.

The city responded by assigning her to a different lot across the street, followed by a special street parking spot and, finally, a space underneath the company’s building.

Then Cloe filed suit, claiming that the city hadn’t accommodated her disability fast enough.

But the court wasn’t buying it.

For the printer issue, the court said that a reasonable jury wouldn’t find the delay problematic because “a responsible government is entitled to take time to evaluate alternatives before spending taxpayer money.”

And as for her parking space? The court said the city engaged in exactly the type of interactive process the Americans with Disabilities Act requires, amending each accommodation when the previous one failed.

For those reasons, the court ruled that the city engaged in the accommodation process properly, and ruled in its favor.

The case is Cloe v. City of Indianapolis.

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