Work Restrictions Cannot Prevent an Employee from Actually Performing a Job
While the Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with health-related work restrictions, the employee must still be able to demonstrate that they can perform the essential functions of the job (including any job to which the employee might be transferred as part of the reasonable accommodation obligation).
In Ehlers v. University of Minnesota, the employee held a position that primarily involved answering customer questions by phone, in person, and by email, and resolving customer issues. She was diagnosed with Temporomandibular Joint Syndrome, which affected her jaw and therefore her ability to speak. She was granted leave, a reduced schedule, and time off for medical appointments. Over the next several months, she subsequently requested numerous and extensive additional accommodations, most of which could not be accommodated. She further informed her employer that she had been diagnosed with overuse injuries resulting from constant typing that impacted her neck, back, hand, elbow, forearm, head and face, as well as anxiety and PTSD. The employer noted that her job could not be restructured to a nonspeaking or reduced speaking role, and repeatedly offered to assist her in finding a new position. The employee identified a number of positions of interest, some of which were filled and others inconsistent with her work restrictions, while the employer sought additional information regarding the rest. She then requested another leave, which was granted. She was subsequently terminated and sued, alleging failure to accommodate by providing her with an alternative position.
As the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit noted, reassignment “is an accommodation of last resort when the employee cannot be accommodated in his existing position.” The employee must show that there is an available position for which they are qualified. In this case, although the employee identified eight positions, she did not provide evidence about the duties and requirements of the positions or whether she could perform them given her severe and extensive work restrictions. Thus the Eighth Circuit found that she was unable to show that she was qualified for any of the positions, with or without reasonable accommodations.
In this case, it was important that the employer repeatedly offered to help the employee find another position, and worked to determine whether those positions fit within her restrictions – not an easy or quick task given her extensive limitations. This reminds employers of the need to explore possible reassignment as an accommodation when an employee cannot do their original job because of their medical condition and to provide assistance to the employee in reviewing available positions in order to meet their obligations under the ADA.