Employer's Duty to Provide Reasonable Accommodations Under ADA - Recent Developments in the Courts
In Debra Kaufman v. Petersen Health Care VII, LLC, 769 F.3d958 (7th Cir. 2014), the Seventh Circuit recently reaffirmed an employer's duty to provide reasonable accommodations to an employee with a disability. The Americans with Disabilities' Act forbids employers from discriminating against "an individual who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires." 42 U.S.C. § 12111 (8). The Seventh Circuit held that Petersen Health Care's requirement that the plaintiff be 100 percent healed before returning to work violated the ADA's requirement that an employer make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. In focusing on this requirement, the court held that an employer must engage in an interactive process to determine an appropriate accommodation when requested by an employee.
Petersen Health Care employed the plaintiff as a hairdresser at the nursing home facility Mason Point. Part of plaintiff's job was to wheel patients from their rooms to the beauty shop. Plaintiff had surgery for a prolapsed uterus condition which restricted her lifting. Initially, her doctor stated she could not lift more than 20 pounds, but eventually he restricted her lifting to no more than 50 pounds.
In determining the plaintiff's restrictions, her physician thought that she was just a hairdresser. Once he learned that she was pushing wheelchairs with patients that could weigh between 75 and 400 pounds, he advised her to not engage in that activity. If she continued to push people in wheelchairs, it would eventually cause her inserted mesh lining to be torn requiring further surgery.
Petersen Health Care addressed the restriction by testimony from the home's administrator stating: "we just don't allow people to work with restrictions, and you have a restriction on here… [A]s long as you've got the restriction we can't employ you." Kauffman, 769 F.3d at 961. Petersen Health Care made it clear to the plaintiff that they would not accommodate her restriction, so she resigned.
Without substantiating its claim, the employer claimed that it would be a hardship for the facility to hire somebody to transport patients to and from the beauty shop for the plaintiff. The District Court ruled that wheeling patients to and from the beauty parlor was an essential part of her job and there was no reasonable accommodation that would enable her to meet the employer's expectations. However, the Seventh Circuit determined that the actual amount of time she spent wheeling patients to and from the beauty shop was a very small portion of her work day.
The Seventh Circuit determined that Petersen Health Care could not just ignore plaintiff's request for accommodation. It was required to engage with the employee in an interactive process to determine appropriate accommodation under the circumstances.
The court reasoned that the possibility of a reasonable accommodation existed. The court believed it was possible without disrupting the operation of the nursing home to assign one staff member to push wheelchairs for the plaintiff on Mondays and another to do the same on Tuesdays. The court held: "[i]f a minor adjustment in the work duties of a couple of other employees would have enabled the plaintiff despite her disability to perform the essential duties of her job as a hairdresser, the nursing home's refusal to consider making such an adjustment was unlawful." Id. at 963.
If an adjustment or accommodation is reasonable, the employer must "demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of the [employer's] business." Id.(quoting 42 U.S.C. § 12112(b)(5)(A)). Petersen Health Care provided no evidence of hardship. It only referenced the need to hire a new employee whose only job would be to wheel residents to and from the beauty shop.
The Seventh Circuit reversed summary judgment granted by the U.S. District Court to the employer and remanded the case for further proceedings. This case underscores the need for employers to engage in an interactive process with employees and to reasonably look for and assess possible accommodations that could keep individuals employed. Employers cannot rely on rigid rules and avoid the requirement they discuss potential accommodations with the employee.