What Is Essential? Assessing the Reasonableness of Requests for Accommodation

21 January 2014 Labor & Employment Law Perspectives Blog

With ADA claims on the rise again this year, employers should continue to focus on the steps they take to accommodate disabled employees. Such focus requires grappling with the following questions: What types of accommodations are reasonable? What are unreasonable? What are the essential functions of the job in question? And to complicate things further, an employer must contemplate and address each of these questions based on the specific job that the disabled employee is performing. A recent case underscores the complicated nature of reasonable accommodations and the process a company must follow in order to properly address the requests of disabled employees.

In the case, the employee suffered from Sjogren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune condition which causes, among other symptoms, joint pain and fatigue. The employee was prescribed various medications by her doctor, which she had to take on a fairly regimented schedule. She informed her supervisor about her condition and that it caused her joint problems, trouble bending in certain ways, climbing stairs, typing, getting up from a sitting position and driving. Additionally because of her medicine schedule, she was only to take a certain prescription one time per day, which she claimed required her to leave work by 5 p.m. in order to drive home prior to the medicine wearing off.

As an accommodation she requested to work only 45 hours per week, which her employer granted. She also requested a reduced workload. This request, her employer refused. As an employee of her level, the employer claimed that she was required to set and achieve a certain number of goals for the year. The employee claimed that she was not able to achieve the goals within a 45-hour workweek and thus requested that she be allowed to set fewer goals than others at her same level. Her supervisors denied the request. The employee thereafter received low scores on her performance evaluations, in part because she did not meet her set goals.

The company later faced the prospect of a reduction in force. The employee, as one of the lowest scoring individuals in her area, was laid off. She then sued, claiming that her employer failed to reasonably accommodate her, among other claims. The court was then faced with the question: Does a reduction in work hours, without a corresponding reduction in workload, constitute a failure to accommodate? The court explained that the employer had the burden to prove that all of her required goals for the year were “essential” functions of the job. Because the employer did not carry that burden, the Court did not dismiss the case and decided that it should proceed forward to trial.

The case is informative to employers on a few fronts. When facing a request for accommodation, important questions must be considered by the employer. Is the request feasible and reasonable? What are the essential functions of the job that the disabled employee performs? If the request is for an accommodation that does not affect the essential functions of the job, it should be granted. As disability cases continue to illustrate, the recent case shows that an employer must be especially careful in the complicated accommodation process. Just because certain accommodations are granted does not mean that others may be denied if they are reasonable. Each request must be independently and carefully assessed for reasonableness in light of the specific job performed by that employee and according to the standards set by the law.

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