Human Resources News & Insights

ADA ruling: Extreme cost not enough to label accommodation an ‘undue hardship’

Here’s painful proof that courts don’t want to hear that you used cost as the determining factor to deny a disabled employee an accommodation under the ADA. 

Lauren Searls was a deaf nurse who was offered a job at Johns Hopkins Hospital. When she accepted the offer, Searls requested a full-time American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter as an accommodation.

‘Not enough in the budget’

The hospital looked into providing one and determined a full-time ASL interpreter would cost $120,000.

It then rescinded the job offer. It claimed the department, which Searls was to be assigned to, had “no other funds to pull from within the department.”

The hospital also claimed its “threshold is zero for interpreter costs.”

As a result, it said the accommodation would create an undue hardship.

‘Irrelevant factor’

Searls then filed an ADA lawsuit against the hospital.

She said she was being discriminated against on the basis of her disability.

Result: She won the case, and a court granted her summary judgment. Johns Hopkins could now be facing some hefty damages.

The court said relying on a budget for reasonable accommodations is “an irrelevant factor in assessing undue hardship.” In other words, relying on money alone — even such a large amount — isn’t enough to establish that an accommodation is unreasonable.

What does this mean? If an employer is going to claim that an employee’s accommodation request would create an undue hardship, it should be prepared to show the accommodation would have a significant negative effect on business operations — such as creating more work for other employees, hurting sales, negatively impacting customer service, etc.

If cost is going to be the main argument, it at least has to be tied to one or more of those factors. Johns Hopkins failed to make that connection.

The court also chided the hospital for focusing solely on the budget for the department to which Searls was to be assigned — rather than the hospital’s entire $1.7 billion budget. The court said the hospital ignored the question of how a $120,000 accommodation would create an undue hardship if it would only account for 0.007% of the hospital’s total operating budget.

Cite: Searls v. Johns Hopkins Hospital

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