We know the law sometimes requires employers to provide job accommodation, such as for religious or disability-related reasons.
But we also know that somewhere in all the muck is a line that employers don’t have to cross over. In other words, there’s a limit to the accommodation employers have to provide.
That limit exists for a good reason: As many HR pros know all too well, sometimes employees just ask for too much.
That’s what happened here, a federal appeals court ruled.
Lots of experience
Laura Tartaro-McGowan had a long career – almost four decades, in fact – as a registered nurse.
For 17 of those years, she worked as a field nurse for a home health agency of Inova Health System. That meant she went to patients’ homes and provided care for them there.
The earliest seed for this lawsuit was planted in 2016 and 2017, when Tartaro-McGowan had bilateral knee replacement surgeries. After that, she developed chronic arthritis in both knees.
As a result, she became limited in her ability to put stress on those joints, such as by squatting, kneeling or bending.
In 2017, Tartaro-McGowan transitioned into a supervisor position as a clinical manager.
Same title, different duties
About a year later, Inova entered into a joint venture with another health network. The new entity interviewed Tartaro-McGowan for a number of positions with the new company before settling on offering her another clinical manager position.
The new employer made it clear that even though the position was managerial, field visits “as needed” were part of the job. It said so in a job description, which added that performing field nursing responsibilities was an essential job function. The job description also specifically said that the job required occasional bending, lifting up to 50 pounds and stooping.
The job description concerned Tartaro-McGowan in light of her physical limitations. She said that when she raised her concerns with hiring reps, they told her that despite the job description she would not have to provide direct care to patients. Any field visits, they allegedly said, would be rare and supervisory in nature.
Tartaro-McGowan took the job, and initially things went fine. From September of 2018 until May of 2020, she went on about 10 to 15 field visits and primarily observed another clinician while on them.
Pandemic changes everything
But things changed in a big way when the pandemic hit. The employer had trouble finding field clinicians, and as a result it told its staffers in May of 2020 that managers would have to start performing direct patient care field visits while it worked to address the shortage.
That’s when Tartaro-McGowan asked to be excused from performing direct patient care field visits, supporting her request with a doctor’s letter that said she should not bend her knees or otherwise stress her lower extremities.
The employer rejected her request to be completely excused from performing field visits, but it told her she could screen patients, self-select assignments, and spread visits out.
Tartaro-McGowan did not perform visits, and the employer told her she had abandoned her job. It terminated her employment.
She sued, alleging denial of accommodation, discrimination and retaliation under the ADA. A lower court ruled against her, and she appealed.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina) upheld the ruling against her.
The appeals court said no reasonable jury could find that the employer denied Tartaro-McGowan a reasonable accommodation.
The employer’s proposed accommodation was not unreasonable, it ruled. There was no reason why she could not pick assignments that fit within her restrictions, it found.
“The ADA requires reasonableness, not perfection,” the court advised.
The lower court’s ruling was affirmed.
Key points on accommodation
Here are some key points from the decision regarding disability-related reasonable accommodation:
- The range of reasonable accommodations that may be required under the ADA is broad. Employers need to take the time to explore and evaluate potential alternative solutions.
- The reasonable accommodation inquiry is extremely fact and circumstance-specific. A cookie-cutter approach is a big mistake. Employers should look at the circumstances of the case and see what might work.
- If more than one accommodation is effective, the employer has the discretion to choose which one to provide. In other words, it’s the employer — and not the employee — who gets to pick when there is more than one answer.
- The fact that a job function is non-essential does not automatically mean that the function must be reallocated as a disability-related job accommodation.
- While employers should consider the opinion of an employee’s physician, they are not bound by it but may propose and implement an acceptable available alternative.
The case is Tartaro-McGowan v. Inova Home Health, LLC, No. 22-1825 (4th Cir. 1/17/24).