Human Resources News & Insights

ADA dilemma: Did over-accommodating disabled worker leave company trapped?

Say a well-meaning manager wants to do the right thing for a disabled worker and winds up offering an accommodation that goes above and beyond what the ADA requires. Then, when management changes, a different manager decides the arrangement is no longer feasible. Is the company bound by law to continue providing that accommodation?

That question was at the heart of Boyle v. the City of Pell. Here’s what happened:

A written agreement

Paul Boyle had been a heavy equipment operator for the City of Pell Street Department when he suffered an on-the-job injury that left him disabled and was unable to perform the essential duties of his position.

Initially, the City’s superintendent allowed Boyle to do office work as an accommodation.

But eventually Boyle and the superintendent came to a written agreement whereby Boyle would perform the job duties of the foreman for two years but at his former pay rate. To make this work, the actual foreman volunteered to work as a mechanic provided he kept his Foreman title and pay.

This arrangement continued well beyond two years until, after the initial superintendent retired, a new one removed Boyle from the foreman position and assigned him an inventory job. Boyle protested and asked to be returned to his foreman post, but the superintendent refused. He claimed that, because the original foreman was retaining the title and pay of the foreman position, he should perform the essential functions of the job as well.

Eventually Boyle took disability retirement and then sued the City under the Rehabilitation Act, a law very similar to the ADA for federal workers and contractors. Boyle’s claim: Refusing to return him to a foreman position was a denial of a reasonable accommodation and a violation of the law.

Past doesn’t dictate future

The court sided with the City for a number of reasons (Boyle had failed to identify any reasonable accommodation the City could’ve provided, presented no evidence that the foreman position was ever vacant during the time he performed foreman duties, etc.), but employers of all stripes will want to pay extra close attention to what it said about previous reasonable accommodations that went beyond the requirements of the law.

According to the court, just because the City had allowed Boyle to perform the foreman duties as an accommodation in the past didn’t mean his removal from that job was a failure to accommodate. In fact, the accommodation was never required by law so removing Boyle from it couldn’t actually violate the Rehabilitation Act’s (or the ADA’s) reasonable accommodation requirements.

Bottom line: Just because your company goes above and beyond the scope of the ADA in an effort to do the right thing for a disabled employee, it doesn’t mean your bound to such an arrangement permanently.

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