A recent federal district court decision is a good reminder that an employer needs to explore all options before denying an accommodation request, including whether it can go back to an employment practice it has changed and applied to all similarly situated employees. The recent case involved a nurse at a hospital with a brain tumor. For years, she worked eight-hour shifts, which were consistent with her medical needs. Over a period of time, according to the hospital but disputed by the employee, the hospital changed its shift practices and required all affected employees to work 12-hour shifts.
The nurse submitted a note from her doctor saying she needed to continue to work eight-hour shifts. The hospital denied the request on the grounds that it could not make an exception for this employee because there would not be proper team coverage for the hospital’s patients for the four hours of each shift that this employee could not work. The hospital contended that the new 12-hour shift practice was, therefore, an essential function. Sounds reasonable, right? Not so fast.
The employee was eventually terminated and filed an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) denial of accommodation claim. The court did not outright reject the employer’s argument. Instead, it found that the nurse had presented enough evidence to create a question as to whether the hospital could make an exception to the shift requirement as an accommodation for her, including that a combination of four-hour, eight-hour, and 12-hour shifts had worked in the past. The court, as a result, denied the employer’s motion for summary judgment and said the issue was for a jury to decide.
This case provides several important lessons.