Share and Share Alike: Sharing Essential Job Functions May Qualify as a Reasonable Accommodation
On April 1, 2019, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois denied summary judgment in an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) case, determining that occasionally excusing employees from performing certain job functions does not render the function nonessential and finding that sharing tasks may be a reasonable accommodation. Schiller v. Northern Suburban Special Recreation District, No. 17 C 8514.
Northern Suburban Special Recreation District “offers recreation opportunities to people with disabilities.” Northern Suburban employed Gabrielle Schiller from May 2014 until August 2016, most recently as a recreation specialist. As set forth in her job description, Schiller was responsible for “the coordination and implementation of safe, high-quality recreation services for individuals with disabilities.”
In her role, Schiller was assigned to be a coleader for an overnight camp. After her coleader was excused from the program due to her pregnancy, which resulted in Schiller being the sole program leader, Schiller informed Northern Suburban that she struggled with stress, anxiety, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue, and expressed concern about the trip being understaffed. In response to Schiller’s concerns, her supervisor agreed to send a full-time staff member to the camp, offered for Schiller to contact her supervisor and the excused coleader as needed, and informed Schiller that she would have the “co-leadership” of an intern and part-time staff member. Despite these representations, no other full-time staff member attended the camping trip in its entirety. Instead, staff members attended portions of the camping trip and were available by telephone.
Several problems arose during the camping trip, including delegation of medication distribution in violation of Northern Suburban policy, a delayed response to a participant’s behavioral management issue, and administration of gluten to a gluten-restricted participant. On the second day of camp, Schiller “hyperventilated, cried, lost feeling in her hands and feet, had multiple panic attacks, decreased mobility, difficulty speaking, and increased pain.” During a visit by Northern Suburban supervisors, Schiller was counseled regarding her responsibility to oversee dietary restrictions and medications, delegate behavior management issues, and contact on-call staff members when problems arose. Schiller confided in the supervisors that “she was frustrated, felt unprepared for the trip, and was being pulled in too many directions.” Later that same day, Schiller contacted the executive director and told him she felt disrespected, could not run the camp without further support, and would not stay at the camp because she had been disrespected. Schiller proceeded to leave the camp and was discharged the following day. Following the termination of her employment, Schiller sued Northern Suburban for alleged violations of the ADA.
At the outset, Northern Suburban argued that Schiller was not a qualified individual with a disability because she was unable to perform the essential function of leading recreation programs. In so arguing, Northern Suburban pointed to the job description, which states that the recreation specialist is “[r]esponsible for the coordination and implementation of safe, high-quality recreation services for individuals with disabilities of all ages” and listed “[d]irect leadership of recreation programs and overnight trips for individuals with disabilities of all ages” as an essential duty. Schiller argued leading recreation programs was not an essential function since staff was occasionally excused from that function due to illness. The court disagreed, noting that occasionally excusing the performance of a function does not render it nonessential.
Northern Suburban also argued that assigning a coleader was not a reasonable accommodation because it would shift the leadership function to another employee. The court disagreed because two recreation specialists were originally assigned as coleaders and sharing responsibility for a task is distinguishable from reassigning the task.
The court also rejected Northern Suburban’s argument that the termination decision-maker was not on notice of Schiller’s alleged disabilities, as Schiller told her supervisor about her medical concerns. Similarly, the court rejected Northern Suburban’s argument that Schiller stopped engaging in the interactive process, noting that Schiller’s supervisor agreed to assign another full-time staff member to the camp, allow her to call supervisors as needed, and to have other employees act as her coleaders but then failed to follow through. Next, the court rejected Northern Suburban’s argument that there was no evidence of causation to demonstrate Schiller’s discharge violated the ADA. It found that the sequence of events and the lack of consideration of progressive discipline in accordance with Northern Suburban’s policy were sufficient to create a genuine issue of fact. Finally, the court found a triable fact issue on Schiller’s retaliation claim due to the timing between her request for accommodation and discharge, differential treatment of another employee who was permitted to resign in lieu of termination, a comment to Schiller that she was selfish for leaving the camp for health reasons, and the lack of consideration of progressive discipline.
There are several key takeaways from this case. First, the occasional removal of an essential function does not per se render that function nonessential. Second, sharing essential functions, particularly when there is a history of doing so, can be a reasonable accommodation. Finally, this case serves as a reminder to employers to be mindful of consistency when bypassing progressive discipline steps.